Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82. A Brief Comparison with Velázquez and Zurbarán.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82. A Brief Comparison with Velázquez and Zurbarán.
Murillo’s art is indelibly linked to Seville, the city where he lived and died and which was, with Madrid, the primary centre of artistic activity in the country. Predictably, Murillo’s paintings are often compared with those of contemporaries associated with the city, whether born there or nearby: most notably Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

Velázquez was born in Seville and cut his artistic teeth in the city, before moving permanently to Madrid in 1623.

Zurbarán hailed from Extremadura but moved to Seville in 1629 at the invitation of the city council. He was recognised as Seville’s premier artist for approximately twenty years from the mid 1630s. In 1658, he relocated permanently to Madrid, by which time his standing in Seville was being challenged by younger painters, among them Murillo, Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-85) and Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-90).

Velázquez is undoubtedly the star, a realist whose paintings challenged accepted norms by portraying in his greatest works an unstable, unpredictable, multi levelled and illusory world. His palette extends widely from religious topics, genre paintings (daily street life, kitchen, and tavern scenes), and portraits –which ranged from street vendors, royalty, nobility, court jesters and dwarfs– and classical mythology. Inserted in many of the canvases dealing with daily life are exquisite examples of still-life, which was increasingly popular in Spain at the beginning of the 17th century.

Zurbarán is known almost exclusively for his religious works portraying saints, martyrs, monks, with some others of Christ, the Virgin, Holy Family etc., His paintings are marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline, and austerity, very much attuned to ascetic contemplation and spiritual meditation.

Interestingly, he also painted a surprising number of young female saints and martyred virgins many of whom are dressed in elegant, colourful garments.

Some exceptional still-life paintings, ten mythological works dealing only with the labours of Hercules, a few portraits and two historical canvases provide some variety to Zurbarán’s oeuvre.

Murillo: Compared with Velázquez’s realism and Zurbarán’s sobriety, Murillo’s art appears overall more lyrical, delicate, passionate, and youthful. His fame rests mainly on his religious output with his paintings involving the Virgin (her birth, as mother, and above all her immaculate conception) being especially striking and popular. Predictably, perhaps, since Seville was the city that most passionately promoted the argument that Mary was immaculately conceived.  

Still, there is also another side to Murillo’s work that surprises: his genre paintings, which although few –some twenty— are as popular as his devotional paintings. These genre canvases depict marginalized figures, e. g. beggars, street sellers, engaged in daily activities –e. g. delousing, eating grapes, playing dice– which normally would not be subjects for serious artists. Like Velázquez, Murillo also introduces fine still-life details into these works.

Some half dozen portraits complete Murillo’s output. The most notable are his self-portrait (1670-73), his painting of Nicolas Omazur 1672 (Omazur was an avid collector of Murillo’s paintings), and a touching portrait of his friend and benefactor, Justino de Neve, 1665.

Velázquez left Seville for Madrid, in 1623, and –except for two trips to Italy– remained in the capital for the rest of his life. He soon became the Spanish court’s most eminent artist and enjoyed the friendship of the king, Philip IV, who in 1562 promoted him to the prestigious and highly coveted post of Chamberlain of the Royal Palace.

Like Velázquez, Zurbarán too felt the attraction of Madrid, visiting the city briefly by invitation in 1634 and settling there permanently in 1658. He was allegedly hailed by the king, Philip IV, as “painter to the king, king of painters” (artstory) after his contribution in 1634 to the Hall of Realms at the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed for Philip in Madrid. His greatest paintings, however, were those carried out for monasteries and convents in Seville or towns close by.

Murillo: Unlike Velázquez, Murillo never entertained ambitions to be a court painter nor –unlike Zurbarán—was he called to contribute to Madrid’s art world. He did visit the city for a few months in 1658, possibly at the invitation of Velázquez. There, he almost certainly saw the royal collection which included works by such prestigious artists as Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck.

Both Velázquez and Zurbarán died in Madrid; Murillo died in Seville following an accident while painting in Cádiz.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Moffitt, John F. Spanish Painting Studio Vista Publishers 1973
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.

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