This trait is puzzling even to Neil Mac-Gregor, the Director of the National Gallery, who writes that "after looking at Zurbaran, a jug will never be the same again, after Sanchez Cotan, no cabbage can seem ordinary". Is that really so? He's on surer, less magical ground when he points out that still life "as a subject in itself, emerges quite suddenly at the end of the 16th century in northern Italy, the Low Count-ries and Spain - all three areas effectively dominated by the Spanish crown". No one has ever explained this phenomenon. Neither does this exhibition. But it makes one think how precious still life is, and what a gift Spain gave to art.
The show opens and closes with still lives by two artists for whom the genre was not of the first significance. Velasquez painted four or five in his immensely talented youth. This was around 1618. Goya had a spate of still-life painting at some point between 1808 and 1812, when he was in his old age. Neither man, one gathers, saw still life as the best vehicle for his genius. There is none the less genius to be found in these pictures.
The three Velasquez paintings are familiar, since they come from British public collections. Really they are bodegones, tavern interiors, but their main theme is the way that Velasquez paints objects. The apprentice painter wanted to show his mastery and there's an element of immature virtuosity in both The Water Seller and Old Woman Cooking Eggs. Still, the virtuosity is of a special, even prophetic, kind. The verisimilitude - "likeness to reality" -is impressive but not so important as the use of brown, or rather browns. See how many distinct types of the colour these paintings possess, and how pure, or suave, dignified or religious browns can be. Here was the innovation in Velasquez's palette. And as later art proves - I instance only Chardin and Braque - this colour was hence-forward cherished by superior still-life painters.
The Goyas are unexplained, even by William B Jordan and Peter Cherry, the Spanish art experts who have written the excellent catalogue. Goya did around a dozen, probably in a single burst of work, on identically sized small canvases. They are not his best paintings, given the gigantic nature of the imagination that produced them. Yet in the four works on display one senses his tragic mind. Perhaps it's significant that they are all of dead animals, not prepared for the table but just dead. The picture of bream is almost a criticism of the bourgeois nature of still life. The fish huddle to each other, eyes bright and horrified, and behind them is a black wave: the sea, destiny, or the surge of Goya's thoughts. This is the period when he was at work on "The Disasters of War".
Still life was suited neither to Goya nor to European romanticism as a whole. Roman-ticism was interested in war, travel, heroic legend, political movements. Still life thrived on peace, provincialism, quiet domestic Christian-ity and had no truck with the movements of politicians or armies. By its very nature it was secluded. Little wonder that the masters of Spanish still life have remained obscure to the British for so long. Perhaps the greatest of them, Luis Melendez, was a revelation as lately as 1989, when he had beautiful section in the National Gallery's "Painting in Spain During the Later 18th Century". His present display doesn't quite compare, but the Still Life with Oranges and Walnuts is a perfect and complicated work and Still Life with Fruit,Cheese and Containers is nearly as good.
For many people, the revelation of this show will be Sanchez Cotan (1560- 1627). In 1603, this Toledo artist gave up painting to become a Carthusian brother, so it's easy to agree with the interpretation that his cabbages and cardoons are painted by a religious man. His pictures are spare and solemn, filled with other-worldly light. The composition of his objects may have been done with the help of mathematical formulae. Some of the paintings look weird because apples and vegetables are shown in mid-air, hanging from strings, but the effect is not of earthly arrangements.
In Spain, where art and religion were allied for so long, there was a religious conviction that our present world of the senses is stranger than the world we will know after death. Hence the feeling in the best of these paintings that the things we approach through appetite have been observed from a serene position beyond the grave. Quinces, jellies, sweetmeats, cheeses, wines, leaves and fowl: all are painted as though pure eyesight had replaced the grosser senses of touch and taste. In this way common and secular objects take a sacred aspect; and here is the centre of the Spanish still-life tradition.
Among the great paintings at the NG are Juan van der Hamen y Leon's Still Life with Sweets and Pottery; Still Life with Bunches of Hanging Grapes by Juan Fernandez, `El Labra-dor'; an unknown artist's Still Life with Books and an Hour Glass; and Francisco de Zurbaran's Still Life with Four Vessels.
The wider still-life tradition continues to this day. How odd that it is so little studied. Some things are obvious. The painter with instinctive understanding of this branch of Spanish art was Manet. Then Czanne's apples reintroduced contemplation of the ordinary. There's a late flowering of Spanish still life in Picasso's earlier Cubism. But why did sculpture not attempt still life before Cubism? In three-dimensional art we find the genre's latest form. Look at the rotundities, ellipses and little platforms in van der Hamen y Leon or Melendez; transform them to abstract steel and you have the background of Anthony Caro's table sculptures.
! National Gallery, WC2, 071-747 2885, to 21 May.