Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82.
Of all the painters of Spain’s Golden Age (approx. 1500-1700), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is the one most closely associated with Seville, Spain’s largest and most dynamic city for much of that period, and gateway to the Americas (commonly known as Las Indias).
Murillo was born in Seville in December 1617 and lived there his entire life except for a few months in 1658 when he visited Madrid. Together with his contemporaries Diego de Velázquez (1598-1660) —also from Seville– and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) –born about 114 kilometres/71 miles north of Seville—Murillo ranks as one of the most celebrated of the many artists who flowered in Spain in the 17th century.
Murillo’s Early Years.
What we know of Murillo’s early life is sketchy and largely indebted to the painter and art critic, Antonio Palomino (1655-1726). The youngest of 14 children, Murillo was born in Seville to a prosperous middle-class family in December 1617.
By the time he was 11, he had lost both parents and was taken in by an older sister, Ana, and her husband. He apparently showed a gift for painting at an early age, and when he was about 12 was apprenticed to a local artist, Juan del Castillo, a family relative on his mother’s side.
Having completed his apprenticeship by the time he was 15, Murillo made plans in 1633 to go to the Americas where he had family connections. His plans were never realised, and nothing in his work indicates that he had made the trip nor is there any comment by contemporaries or acquaintances to that effect. Furthermore, we know that towards the end of the 1630s he was working in Seville.
By this time, the artistic world of Seville was dominated by Zurbarán, with Velázquez having already established himself in Madrid by 1623. Zurbarán’s star shone between roughly 1635 and 1650 with works marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline, and austerity. They were more attuned to ascetic contemplation than sentimental emotions/feelings which is what Murillo brought to his works and which helped him replace Zurbarán as the painter of choice in the 1650s.
Although Murillo had probably already begun to make a name for himself from around 1640, his first major commission came in 1645, the same year that he married Beatriz Cabrera de Villalobos who was to bear him several children.
The commission was for a series of paintings for one of the cloisters of the Monastery of San Francisco el Grande in Seville. Each canvas was intended to portray events/ miracles from the lives of famous Franciscans, the best known of which is The Angels’ Kitchen 1646, now in the Louvre in Paris.
Around the same time, Murillo also painted some genre paintings drawn from everyday life. These works depicted marginalized figures, e. g. beggars, street sellers, engaged in daily activities which normally would not be subjects for serious artists. However, thanks to the influence of Dutch and Flemish artists and of the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610), such paintings became increasingly popular.
Murillo never lost his interest in life on the street, but his output was limited to about twenty paintings possibly because commissions for this type of painting were not as forthcoming as for religious topics. Such commissions came largely from Flemish or Dutch merchants whose cultural background was rich in paintings of every day life.
Ironically, given Murillo’s devout nature and large numbers of religious canvases, these genre paintings proved to be as popular and appealing to the public as his devotional works. His early street life paintings include The Young Beggar (aka. Boy Delousing Himself) and Boys Eating Grapes, both c. 1645; his later renditions include Old Woman and Young Boy (c. 1670) and Young Boys Playing Dice, c. 1665-75).
Murillo’s success led to further devotional commissions. Around 1650, he painted for example The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Virgin of the Rosary, and the intimate, domestic scene of The Holy Family with a Bird.
By now his patrons also including members of Seville’s merchant class. He was helped here by a fortuitous circumstance: the marriage in July 1644 of the daughter of his sister Ana and her husband to José de Vieitia Linaje. Vieitia was a member of the Brotherhood of the True Cross (Hermandad de la Vera Cruz) which had a chapel in San Francisco el Grande. Importantly, many members of the Brotherhood were wealthy foreign merchants.
Seville’s “Best Painter.
By the early 1650s, Murillo’s status as artist was evidently increasing if the statement made by Archdeacon of Carmona and Canon of Seville, Juan de Federigui, is anything to go by. In May 1655, Federigui requested the artist paint portraits of St. Isidore and St. Leander for the cathedral sacristy. The Archdeacon justified his selection of Murillo praising him as “the best painter that there is today in Seville” (Brown 204a), a comment that probably ruffled Zurbarán and other rivals.
To Madrid and Back, 1658.
In May 1658, Murillo left for Madrid where Velázquez was the leading court painter. [It was in the same year that Zurbarán too left Seville, returning to the capital for the second time, this time permanently.] We do not know the circumstances that prompted the move, but Madrid was by now the place to be for artists and the king, Philip IV, was a major patron of the arts. Furthermore, there was the attraction of the royal collection –to which Murillo would have had access thanks to Velázquez– which included works by such prestigious names as Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck.
Return to Seville, 1658-80.
Nevertheless, Murillo did not stay long in Madrid since by early December 1658 he is known to be back in Seville. He quickly re-established his status as Seville’s preeminent artist and in 1660 helped found Seville’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes, together with his fellow artists Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-85) and Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-90). Murillo served as its first president, a title he shared with Herrera the Younger.
The Crowning Years 1658-1682.
In 1660, Murillo painted the Birth of the Virgin for the altar of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the Cathedral. In its soft, gentle, and subdued colouration of the birth scene and its freer sfumato technique (blending of tones and outlines), it is Murillo’s first work to reflect the influence of Italian painters he undoubtedly saw on his Madrid trip.
Several commissions followed in the early 1660s, the most important of which was for the church of Santa María la Blanca, a synagogue converted into a church. Instrumental in helping him secure the commission in 1662 was Justino de Neve (c. 1625-85), a canon of the Cathedral and son of a Flemish merchant who had settled in Seville. Neve would become a good friend and important patron of Murillo.
Another major commission –of 18 paintings– came in 1665 for the main altar and side altars of the Convent of the Capuchin Fathers (an austere branch of the Franciscan Order) in Seville. Murillo worked quickly, completing twelve by the end of 1666 when the departure of the head of the monastery and lack of interest by his two successors saw the assignment halted. Murillo returned to the project in 1668, at which time he painted the moving canvas portraying Christ gently putting his right arm around the shoulder of the kneeling St. Francis (St. Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ c. 1670).
Further commissions came Murillo’s way including one for the newly built Hospital de la Caridad (located near the Plaza de Toros) and intended to care for the aged and infirm. The Brotherhood of Charity (Hermandad de la Caridad), which had admitted Murillo to its ranks in 1665, commissioned eight works which Murillo concluded between 1667 and 1672. Appropriately –given the Charity’s role– Murillo’s paintings portray saintly or religious figures demonstrating kindness/love/forgiveness/ generosity: e. g. The Return of the Prodigal Son, Feeding of the Five Thousand, St. Catherine of Hungary Curing the Sick.
Towards the end of the 1670s, Murillo received a commission from Justino de Neve, for a painting for his private oratory/ chapel. It turned out to be Murillo’s most celebrated rendition of a widely discussed topic, especially in Seville: whether the Virgin Mary had been conceived without sin. Disputes between Franciscans and Dominicans and their respective supporters were fierce/heated and leading artists in Seville all contributed their versions of the theme. A declaration by Pope Alexander VII in 1661 came out on the side of the Franciscans and the majority of Sevillanos: Mary was free from original sin. Fireworks, bullfights and other festivities were organised to celebrate the decision.
Murillo painted about two dozen versions of the immaculate conception but the one he did for Neve is widely recognised not only as his best, but as one of the most iconic of all representations of the theme. Known as the Immaculate Conception of the Venerables, it was donated by Neve to the Hospital de Venerables, a charitable institution established by him in 1676 as a residence for retired priests. [This painting is sometimes referred to as the Soult Madonna, after the French marshal who appropriated it during the Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in the Peninsular War 1808-14. After Soult’s death, it was auctioned and bought by the Musée du Louvre for the highest price ever paid for a work of art at the time. It finally returned to Spain in 1941 and was installed in the Prado Museum –where it remains to this day– following an arrangement between the French Vichy government and the Franco dictatorship.]
Murillo’s Death, 1680.
By 1680, Seville’s monopoly on trade with the Americas began to weaken. Larger transatlantic vessels found it increasingly difficult to navigate the Guadalquivir, and most Atlantic ships were now loading and unloading at Cádiz.
Merchants followed suit, one of whom was the Genoese-born Giovanni Bielato (?-1681). Although little is known about him, he is recorded as being active in Cádiz in 1662. Whether he knew Murillo is unclear, but he evidently liked his paintings. Shortly before he died in Genoa in 1681 he donated a collection of seven of Murillo’s works to that city’s Capuchin Order.
Why mention Cádiz and Bielato? Well, Bielato also left a bequest to the Capuchins of Cádiz who “used the money to commission an altarpiece by Murillo for their church” (Brown 227b). And Cádiz? It was while he was working in Cádiz on the painting, the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, that Murillo fell from the scaffolding supporting him and suffered internal injuries from which he died a few months later. The altarpiece was completed by his pupil, Francisco Meneses Osorio.
Murillo was buried in the Church of Santa Cruz in Seville but his remains were sadly lost when the church was torn down by the French during the Peninsular War (1808-14). [The present Church of Santa Cruz was formerly known as the Clérigos del Espíritu Santo (Convent of the Holy Spirit of the Clergy Minor), a 17th-18th century building.]
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.
Palomino,Antonio on Murillo: https://books.google.ca/books?redir_esc=y&hl=pt-PT&id=AGVeAAAAcAAJ&q=murillo#v=snippet&q=murillo&f=false pp. 420-24.
The Angels’ Kitchen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Angels%27_Kitchen
The Beggar Boy, Boys Eating Grapes, Old Woman and Young Boy, Young Boys Playing Dice: Wikipedia
The Virgin of the Rosary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Rosary_(Murillo)
The Holy Family with a Bird: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holy_Family_with_a_Little_Bird
Birth of the Virgin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_the_Virgin_(Murillo)
St, Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Francis_Embracing_Christ_on_the_Cross
Return of the Prodigal Son: https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.34956.html
Immaculate Conception of the Venerables: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Immaculate_Conception_of_Los_Venerables
Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine: https://www.wikiart.org/en/bartolome-esteban-murillo/the-mystic-marriage-of-saint-catherine-1682