Just before the end of December in 1617, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born in or near Seville, Spain. His work is now largely eclipsed by that of Velázquez (1599-1660), but until the late nineteenth century he was generally the better-known.
In this short series of articles to mark the four hundredth anniversary of his birth, I will trace his artistic development, and try to show you why Murillo’s work should be as celebrated today as that of Velázquez.
Murillo was the son of a barber-surgeon, who performed minor operations, cut hair, and may well have pulled teeth too. He was orphaned at the age of ten, then brought up by one of his older sisters and her husband. Perhaps as a result, he didn’t use his father’s surname much, and preferred that of his mother’s mother, Murillo.
His mother’s family were artists, and he learned to paint with one of her brothers, Juan del Castillo, in Seville. He was there exposed to the work of Zurbarán and Jusepe de Ribera, and his early work shows their influence in its dark, shadowy depths.
Penitent Mary Magdalene from 1640 is one of Murillo’s earliest surviving paintings, completed when he was about twenty-two. It was the first of several versions that he made of this popular subject. Mary is shown conventionally as a ‘scarlet woman’ in penitence, accompanied by a large Bible, a skull, and a jar of myrrh.
In 1642, Murillo moved to Madrid, where he saw the work of Velázquez, and northern masters including Rubens, in the great collections there, which started to transform his own paintings.
Painted for the cathedral in Seville, Murillo’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1640-45) is one of his first narrative works. It tells the story of Joseph, from the Old Testament book of Genesis, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers. In Egypt, Joseph rose from being a domestic slave to the head of household for Potiphar, the captain of the palace guard.
Potiphar’s wife was frustrated by Joseph’s resistance to her attempts to seduce him, so falsely accused him of rape, leading to Joseph’s imprisonment.
A popular subject for paintings at the time, Murillo bases his composition on a familiar scenario in which Joseph is trying to escape from Potiphar’s wife, but she is restraining him by holding onto his clothing. Its sensuality and sexuality are implicit, with the woman half-rising from her bed, showing relatively little of her flesh, in accordance with the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Murillo contrasts the elaborate patterning and depiction of fabrics in the woman’s clothing and bedding, with the simplicity of Joseph’s, to mark his virtue.
In 1645, Murillo returned to Seville and married the wealthy Beatriz Cabrera y Villalobos, who bore their eleven children before her death in about 1663. He was commissioned to paint eleven works depicting miracles of the Franciscan saints for the convent of Saint Francisco el Grande in Seville.
Saint Didacus of Alcalá Feeding the Poor (c 1645-46) is one of those commissioned works, showing this Franciscan lay brother, also known as Diego de San Nicolás, who was among the first missionaries to the Canary Islands two centuries previously. Initially working there as a mere porter, in 1445 he was appointed Guardian of the Franciscan community on Fuerteventura, an unusual distinction for a lay brother.
One of Murillo’s few paintings of a small crowd, this shows Didacus/Diego at the left, praying that his limited supply of food would be multiplied to meet the needs of the many old and poor around him. As a result, the pot never exhausted, and he was able to feed all those who came to him. The inscription below contains relevant remarks about this episode in the saint’s life.
Murillo’s marvellous panorama of The Angels’ Kitchen (1646), also known as The Levitation of Saint Giles, is an unusual fusion of the miraculously spiritual with the everyday environment of the working kitchen. At the left, two visitors are brought in to see the extraordinary events taking place in the kitchen: one monk, traditionally thought to be Saint Giles, is levitating by the power of ‘the spirit’.
Four full-size winged angels and three smaller angels are engaged in various kitchen tasks, including the preparation of food.
Murillo also started to paint popular set pieces, which remained in strong demand throughout his career. These included this early version of The Annunciation from about 1650, showing the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus Christ.
This is quite a conventional depiction of this very popular scene, including white lily flowers symbolising Mary’s purity and chastity, the white dove of the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s pious acceptance kneeling before an open book. Nine winged putti and a small wicker crib in the background reinforce the theme of maternity.
The Adoration of the Shepherds (c 1650) is another set piece, this time providing more scope for individual interpretation. Murillo meets expectations, with the Holy Family, ox, and ass, and adds some delightful extras. These include the old woman carrying a basketful of eggs, chickens in front of the kneeling shepherd, and his worn appearance.
His composition is based on the close-knit triangle formed by the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherd, which brings the heads of the key figures together, the strongest light being cast on the baby and his mother.
Away from standard set pieces, Murillo’s increasingly tender realism was most effective in domestic settings, such as The Holy Family with a Bird (c 1650). Mary sits winding thread, her sewing basket behind her. Joseph is seated with his carpenter’s tools in the background, playing with his young son Jesus. In front of them is a small white dog, who raises a paw. The right hand of Jesus holds a small bird, raised up as if to tease the dog with it.
Murillo’s increasing attention to detail and his skilful rendering of fabrics makes this simple non-narrative scene appear quite contemporary and thoroughly convincing.
Murillo also started to paint a few secular works, such as The Melon Eaters (c 1645-55). Concentrating his attention on the poor, he again takes care to make their tatty clothes appear genuine, and their feet dirty. Here two boys are taking enormous pleasure in eating slices of melon and bunches of grapes, an activity which the artist makes truly mouth-watering.
Murillo’s reputation grew in Seville, and by about 1650 he had surpassed the great Zurbarán. The next article will examine the development of his mature personal style during the 1650s and early 1660s.