Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
FREE Catholic Classes
Spanish painter ; b. at Seville, 31 December, 1617; d. there 5 April, 1682. His family surname was Esteban; that of Murillo, which he assumed in accordance with an Andalusian custom, was his mother's. His father was an artisan. An orphan at the age of ten, Bartolomé was brought up by his uncle, J.A. Lagarès, a barber. He became the pupil, probably while still very young, of Juan del Castillo, a mediocre painter, but good teacher, whose atelier was at that time much frequented. It is said that, to gain a living, the young man in those days made sargas -- cheap paintings on rough canvas sold at country ferias (fairs), and shipped to America by traders. The Museum of Cadiz claims, but without proof, that one of these Murillo sargas is in its possession. In 1640 Castillo went to live at Cadiz. In the meantime, Moya, having just arrived from England, where he had been Van Dyck's pupil, showed Murillo, who was an old friend of his, the cartoons, drawings, copies, and engravings he had brought with him. Murillo set out on a journey to study the great masters, but went no farther than Madrid. Velasquez, the king's painter and the friend of Olivares, was himself a native of Seville; he welcomed his young compatriot and gave him the entrée to all the royal galleries, where Murillo saw the masterpieces of Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Rubens, not to mention Velasquez himself. He spent three years here, and this was all his travel. He returned to Seville in 1644. After this he left Seville but once, in 1681, when he went to Cadiz to paint an altar for the Capuchins which he never had the time to finish. A fall from his scaffolding or else a serious illness -- accounts differ -- forced him to let himself be taken back, hurriedly, to Seville, where he died after a brief period of suffering.
His was a very pure life, and perfectly happy, all spent within that one Sevillian horizon which the artist never wished to change for any other. His paintings in the portería of the Minims made a celebrity of him at the age of twenty-eight (1646). From that time he devoted himself to work on a large scale for the convents of his native Seville, work which, in some respects, recalls the Giottesque paintings of the fourteenth century. In contrast with Velasquez and the Madrid school, Murillo is wholly a religious painter. With the exception of a few portraits and some genre pieces, not one profane picture of his is known to exist. The product of his life's work is summed up in the great cycles of Santa Maria la Blanca (1665), of the Caridad Hospital (1670-74), of the Capuchins (1676), of the Venerables Sacerdotes (1678), of the Augustinians (1680), and, lastly, of the Cadiz Capuchins, together with a large number of pictures made at different times for the cathedral of Seville or other churches and many devotional works for private individuals. Murillo was the national painter of a country where all sentiment was still merged in the one sentiment of religion. The critics have distinguished three periods, or manners, in his work: the cold, the hot, and the "vaporous". The classification is foolish and pedantic. It is enough to look at his "Angels' Kitchen" (1646), his "Birth of the Virgin" (1655), and his "Holy Family" (1670), all in the Louvre: here we can see nothing but the natural evolution of a talent which from first to last pursued but one ideal -- the poetical transfiguration of facts and ideas.
This ideal is already fully perceptible in the first of the examples cited, or in the "Death of St. Clare" (Dresden Museum), which also belongs to the portería series. In the "Angels' Kitchen", as in many others of his paintings, the artist's problem is to combine the supernatural with the real and familiar. Here we have a holy Franciscan in ecstasy, lifted from the ground, while angels with shining wings attend to the service of the refectory and wash the pans; and lastly, some spectators are peeping through a half-open door. The whole scene is displayed with admirable clearness, without a suggestion of hiatus between the three parts which are so diverse in character.
From this period date those few genre paintings which may be regarded as exceptional works of Murillo, the most famous example being the "Pouilleux" of the Louvre. Like every great Spanish painter, Murillo is a realist, and goes as far as anyone in the pathetic painting of suffering. But he refuses to paint these horrors with the frightful dilettantism, the cold, cruel detachment, of other Spanish artists. For him, pain and misery are objects of pity, not of curiosity or pleasure. AIone of the great painters of his race, his genius is tender, affectionate. Murillo's realism, however exact and sound, is never altogether impersonal or objective. In spite of himself, he communicates, together with the record of the reality, the emotions which it produces in himself; he does not alter its form, but he adds to it something of his own. In Spain, the classic land of brutal observation, of the "slice taken from life" served up raw and bleeding, Murillo invents, combines, achieves compositions. He has an imagination, and he does not make a point of honour of ignoring it. With more than average gifts for portraiture -- as witness his portrait of Padre Cabanillas, at Madrid, or the admirable figure in the Museum of the Hispanic Society in New York -- he made very few portraits. On the other hand, he has the gift and the instinct for story-telling. The Italian sense of fine arrangement, of a happy symmetry and harmonious balance of grouping, as in his Holy Families, in the Louvre, is a quality which he alone seems to have possessed in his age.
Murillo was a great painter of sentiment. Like Rembrandt, he understood that the true language of the Gospel was the language of the people. Like him, he especially delighted in the merciful and tender aspects of the Gospel. Nothing can be more touching than the "Prodigal Son" of the Hermitage -- not even Rembrandt's treatment of that subject -- or his sketches on the same parable in the Prado. Like Rembrandt, he loves to bring the sacred truths near to us, to make us see them as intimate and familiar realities, to show us the Divine all about us in our lives. Murillo, no doubt, has the defects of these qualities. He never suffered enough. His optimism, his bonhomie, his grace, lack the seriousness that trials should have imparted. His serene smile lacks that intangible quality of having been through sorrow. Failing this experience, the soul tends somewhat to levity and to preciosity.
His pre-eminence as, superlatively, the painter of the Immaculate Conception seems to have been foreshadowed in the circumstances of his birth. At Seville, in 1617, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was solemnly promulgated for Spain ; and this splendid celebration took place in Murillo's native city only a few months before his birth. The pictorial treatment of the subject had long been determined, in its main outlines, by a vision said to have been vouchsafed to a Franciscan of the sixteenth century, and a hundred examples of it are found among earlier painters. The mere theological dogma of the Immaculate Conception -- exemption from the original taint -- necessarily eluded all material representation: the equivalent chosen was the theme of the Assumption. The body is seen exempt from all the laws of gravitation. Murillo has treated this theme more than twenty times, without repeating himself or ever wearying: six versions at Madrid, six others at Seville, the famous Louvre picture (dated 1678), and still others scattered over Europe -- all these did not exhaust the painter's enthusiasm or his power of expressing apotheosis.
It is a remarkable fact that these pictures, which represent the most transcendently spiritual action, are the most thoroughly feminine paintings in Spain. But for religious representations of the Blessed Virgin and the saints, indeed, woman is almost absent from Spanish painting. The most famous portraits of women, the infantas or meninas of Velasquez, retain nothing of feminine charm: they are simulacra and phantoms without verisimilitude. Side by side with these apparitions, Murillo's Virgins produce a comforting effect of relief. Here are women, true and vital, with the most thoroughly external charms of their sex. In them the impulse of love rises to ecstasy, and without Murillo Spanish painting would be deprived of its most beautiful love poems. Many persons, it is true, see in this style of painting the symptoms of decadence in Spanish religious sentiment. This question of the soundness or unsoundness of his devotional tendencies cannot be treated here, but it may at least be claimed for Murillo that his art -- notably in these Immaculate Conceptions -- is no less genuinely religious than the dry productions of, say, a Philippe de Champaigne.
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.