The Ups, Downs and Ups of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

During an Age of Faith, Murillo infused the artistic patrimony of Spain with beauty, joy and hope of salvation.

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Murillo, "Self-Portrait" (detail), ca. 1670, National Gallery, London.
Murillo painted this second self-portrait for his family around two decades after the first. His hairline has receded, his moustache is gray and his jowls are fleshy. The full image is below.

“This is a bit of a Spanish year for us,” Ian Wardropper, director of New York’s Frick Collection, admitted during a press preview last November. Paintings by two masters of the Spanish Golden Age, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82) and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), are the subjects of simultaneous exhibitions until Feb. 11. At that time, the exhibition “Murillo: the Self-Portraits” heads off to London’s National Gallery, while Zurbarán’s 13 paintings remain until Apr. 22. The two painters, who worked in Seville at the same time, are celebrated. Yet Zurbarán’s ranking in the artistic pantheon — along with the status of his fellow 17th-century Sevillano Diego Velázquez and other Spanish artists like Ribera, El Greco and Goya — is higher than Murillo’s. The Frick show may jump-start a reappraisal of Murillo as less the syrupy, sentimental painter of devotional images and street urchins and more an innovative artist. According to Frick chief curator Xavier F. Salomon, “The portraits will make people think of a different side to Murillo” — an artist of both convention and invention.

“Self-Portrait,” ca. 1650-55 by Murillo, the Frick Collection. This self-portrait references Murillo’s interest in antiquity, setting his image in a fictive stone block recalling Roman ruins in Seville.

Murillo’s descent from a pinnacle of acclaim to a figure disparaged after the advent of Modernism demonstrates the fickleness of taste and transience of fame. During his heyday, Murillo was much sought after to paint images of the Immaculata and the Virgin and Child, as well as religious images for churches, convents and ecclesiastical orders of Seville. After the plague of 1649 carried off half the city’s population, Murillo’s Madonnas were a source of consolation and inspiration. His nearly two dozen Immaculatas are serene, idealized yet human and — above all — comforting with their luminous beams of celestial light and reams of winged angels. Zurbarán’s edgier images of saints and monks — with abstract, dark backgrounds and dramatic chiaroscuro — had been lauded before the wave of deaths but afterwards fell out of favor. As for Velázquez — now considered one of the greatest artists who ever painted — he was hardly known outside Spain.

For centuries, Murillo’s reputation was supreme. In 1779, his paintings were so sought after that King Charles III prohibited their export out of fear that none would remain in Spain. When Napoleon’s army plundered Seville in 1813, Murillo paintings — many installed in the Louvre — were considered the grandest masterpieces. During the frothy Rococo era, the French especially appreciated Murillo’s pearlescent paintings. Eighteenth- and 19th-century English collectors were ga-ga over his picturesque beggar-boy genre scenes. In 1852, “Murillo Mania” reached its European apogee when the Louvre outbid the Tsar of Russia for a Murillo Madonna. Across the pond in early 20th-century America, Murillo was all the rage, admired for his delicate color and “vaporous” brushwork — soft as Correggio’s.

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“Nicolás Omazur” (1672) by Murillo, Museo Nacional del Prado. This image of an art collector in Seville is an example of a “vanitas” painting to remind the viewer of the fleeting nature of life.

Then came the fall. Manet and the Impressionists rediscovered Velázquez, with his rapid brushstrokes that lent a sense of immediacy, conjuring light and atmosphere. Expressionists admired El Greco’s distortions of form. Goya was praised for his contrarian subject matter. By the time 20th-century Modernism erupted in Paris, Murillo’s work was not just disparaged but reviled as anti-progressive, retardataire.

The Frick show — honoring the 400th anniversary of Murillo’s birth — is the first to focus exclusively on portraits, which are much less known than his religious images. (The exhibition puts Murillo’s self-portraits in context with some of his other paintings.) In a phone interview, the curator Xavier Salomon emphasized the portraits’ merit, citing Murillo’s “complicated systems of creating a composition, with a framing device around the sitter.”

According to Salomon, the faux-stone surrounds of the portraits are a “unique conceit” pioneered by Murillo. In an early self-portrait painted when the artist was in his thirties, Murillo embeds his image in a trompe l’oeil slab of stone, battered and chipped. “That doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Salomon said, “not even in prints.”

“Self-Portrait” (ca. 1670) by Murillo, National Gallery, London. Murillo portrays himself as an artist with the tools of his trade on a stone ledge and his hand reaching out to posterity.

In a self-portrait Murillo painted two decades later, the oval simulacrum of a stone frame shows the influence of print culture. Northern European books with engraved frontispieces often displayed portraits surrounded by similarly elaborate, scrolled stone frames. Here Murillo’s originality lies in the fact that he represents his hand breaking the two-dimensional plane of the painting’s surface, seeming to project towards the viewer as it rests on the frame. “What Murillo is doing with these ideas of trompe l’oeil and framing,” Salomon said, “is something that none of the other great painters of the time like Zurbarán or Velázquez were thinking about.”

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“Two Women at a Window” (ca. 1655-60) by Murillo, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Murillo dissolves the boundaries between art and reality with an illusionistic depiction of two girls in a window.

The Frick show includes six of 16 known portraits by Murillo, as well as figural portraits within genre scenes. Two Women at a Window depicts a winsome, young woman leaning on a wooden sill. A Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill also portrays a smiling youth seeming to enter the viewer’s space. Both paintings, rendered in blurred, sfumato — almost polished — brushstrokes are the essence of prettiness. But where Murillo’s idealization of figures may seem saccharine elsewhere, here the element of affable figures engaging the spectator makes these images seem to vibrate in the present. Their implicit narrative is ambiguous. The figures’ ingratiating gazes require interaction. Only a sour cynic could refuse to return the smiles.

Murillo’s ability (as in counter-Reformation, Baroque art in general) to arouse emotion and imagination in the viewer — combined with his virtuoso skills as a draftsman and colorist — are compelling reasons to reevaluate his art. Murillo recorded visually the ardent religious sensibility of Seville in the 17th century. During an Age of Faith, he infused the artistic patrimony of Spain with beauty, joy and hope of salvation. During our current Age of Doubt, it’s perhaps hard to appreciate this combination of grace and devotion.

Murillo’s portraits will remain as a monument to his genius.

Such piety has not disappeared. If you go to Seville today, you can’t help but be struck by the religious aura that seeps from the stones of its massive Gothic cathedral or the many churches, convents and institutions founded by charitable brotherhoods with their devotional images by Murillo, Zurbarán and Velázquez. Pilgrims and parishioners still parade during Holy Week processions, when the secular and celestial seem intertwined. (The city of Seville is devoting all of 2018 to a celebration of Murillo’s legacy, with programs, exhibitions, concerts and symposia dedicated to the subject.)

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The 19th-century travel writer Richard Ford called Velázquez’s art masculine and Murillo’s style feminine. Murillo was certainly a gifted interpreter of female beauty, conceived as delicate and refined. Reproductions of his signature Immaculate Conception paintings of a radiant Virgin Mary attended by billowing clouds of chubby cherubs still hang in almost every parochial school.

In contrast to Murillo’s diaphanous Virgin Marys — floating on an amber cloud — his portraits of notable men are darker, suggesting traditionally masculine attributes of authority and power. This representation of both the soft and solid sides of humanity in Murillo’s work has been overlooked. As his biographer Albert F. Calvert wrote, “When the last shaft of criticism has been flung at his theatrical Holy Children, his sugary Madonnas, his paucity of thought and his adopted Catholic individuality, Murillo’s portraits will remain as a monument to his genius, an unanswerable argument to all who would challenge his claim to a niche in the Temple of Art.”

Columbus set sail from Seville to discover new worlds. Are there new worlds to discover in Seville’s sacred son, Murillo?

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Carol Strickland
Carol Strickland has written six books on art, architecture and literature, including the popular introduction to art history (a third, expanded edition available in January 2018), The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present. Another book, The Annotated Arch, sold out its first edition and will be released in February 2018 by Echo Point Books as The Annotated Flying Buttress: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture. Her enhanced eBooks, released by Erudition Digital, are Impressionism: A Legacy of Light and The Eagle and the Swan, a historical novel portraying the life of Empress Theodora in sixth-century Constantinople. The novel will also be published in print by Echo Point in 2018. Strickland has a Ph.D. in American literature and, as a cultural journalist, has contributed feature stories on the arts to The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Art in America and MOMUS.