Francisco de Zurbaran was a 17th century Spanish painter who is considered by most to have been amongst the country's finest artists in history. Dali was someone who studied his nation's artistic history in great detail and had a great love for Renaissance and Baroque art, even though most of his own work fell into the more modern movements of Impressionism, Expressionism and Surrealism. Dali did occasionally make use of masters' paintings as inspiration for his modern interpretations, such as regularly with Goya.
In this case he chooses to depict artist Zurbaran himself, though one would not have known without the aid of the title for this piece. The painting is 39 1/2 inches tall and wide, perfectly square. The archway then spreads evenly across the composition and within that are some perfectly constructed series of squares which deliver an almost mathematical approach to art. Though lesser known, it has achieved a strong backing from academics who find a great deal of technical brilliance within this piece. The reason for the skull would likely be that artist Zurbaran would actually make use of them in a number of his own portraits and this was a direct comment on that.
A museum in Cadiz which holds a number of Zurbaran's paintings is likely to have provided inspiration to the artist, indeed several have the same arched layout that he himself used for this painting. Indeed, one of the rooms itself has a tiled floor as well. The 1950s were a period at which the artist was settled in his artistic style having worked for several decades to find his preferred approach. He produced all manner of genres in his early years and never truly ran out of inspiration or enthusiasm for new ideas. Eventually he chose to stick with the surrealist style for which he is best known today and would instead continue to experiment by attacking other mediums, such as sculpture, furniture and jewellery. He would then take some of his repeated images of surrealism into those art forms as well, such as his melting clocks and his various adpated animals.