Rarely has an artist ridden the rollercoaster of popular taste as wildly as 17th century Seville-based master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Championed for two centuries after his death as Spain’s finest Baroque painter, his reputation nosedived in the late 19th century, when his hefty religious canvases and genre paintings documenting Andalusian street life came to be viewed as over-sentimental and kitschy. Indeed, at one point, Murillo was practically written out of art history altogether, considered too tame and treacly for contemporary tastes. But, in the 21st century, the Sevillian’s oeuvre has quietly crept back into vogue—culminating in 2018 as cities on both sides of the Atlantic celebrate the 400th anniversary of his birth.
Who was Murillo?
Born in Seville on December 31st, 1617—towards the end of the Spanish Golden Age—Murillo grew up in a cosmopolitan city feasting on the riches of Spain’s vast colonial empire. By the time he was old enough to hold a paintbrush, the Andalusian capital had already produced two epoch-defining artists: the refined portraitist Diego Velzáquez and the sternly religious Francisco de Zurbarán. Murillo’s early paintings were heavily influenced by Zurbarán’s chiaroscuro style, featuring illuminated countenances of saints and angels against dark, dramatic backgrounds. As a devout Catholic with close associations to Seville’s religious orders, the fledgling artist quickly became known for his spiritual canvases.
Yet Murillo was no one-trick pony. Unlike his Spanish contemporaries, he ventured beyond religious themes to paint Sevillian street life. His touching (if idealized) depictions of street urchins, beggars, and flower girls were likely commissioned by itinerant Flemish merchants who frequented the city. While the gritty subject matter might have been familiar to viewers in the Protestant Dutch Republic, it was boldly revolutionary in Catholic Spain.
Although Murillo’s early work was generally pious and somber in tone, his later paintings embraced a broader color palette. Earnest, life-like figures were bathed in a soft, smoky light; cherubic angels dissolved into fluffy celestial clouds. The metamorphosis was likely the result of a visit to Madrid, where the artist would have met Velázquez and been exposed to eclectic canvases in the royal collection, including work by Flemish masters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.
By the time of his death in 1682, Murillo had produced more than 400 paintings and cemented a legacy that would endure for some 200 years—making his paintings a magnet for collectors, top museums, and art thieves.
Why does his work matter?
“Murillo is one of the most important painters in 17th-century Spain, an artist who was consistently interested in establishing a contact between the surface of a painting and the viewer,” explains Xavier F. Salomon, chief curator of the Frick Collection.
Above all, Murillo is remembered for his religious paintings, particularly his renditions of the Immaculate Conception, a cornerstone of Catholic doctrine that obsessed many Spanish Baroque painters. Murillo attempted over two dozen inmaculadas in his career. One of the most famous is La Inmaculada Concepción de los Venerables (1678), a jubilant painting of the Virgin Mary that today hangs in the Museo Nacional del Prado. The work is also known as La Inmaculada de Soult, after Jean-de-Dieu Soult, the Napoleonic general who stole it from Seville’s Hospital de los Venerables in 1810. After Soult’s death in 1851, the work was sold to the Louvre for a reputed 615,000 francs—a world-record price for the time.
Another Murillo that went missing was The Vision of Saint Anthony (1656), which eschewed the contrasts of chiaroscuro in favor of a more light-handed, vaporous style. Hung in Seville’s cathedral, the painting was the victim of a notorious art heist in 1874 when an unknown thief cut the figure of Saint Anthony out of the canvas. The fragment turned up in New York several months later, whereupon it was quickly sent back to Spain and re-inserted into the painting. The seams are still visible today.
Why did he fall out of favor?
Murillo was, in many ways, a victim of changing tastes. “He was incredibly famous up until the 19th century,” says Salomon, “but with shifting fashion for art—and because of many of the subject matters he treated—he has been less popular, undeservedly, in the past century.”
Zealous Catholic iconography fell out of fashion in the late 19th century, when Spain’s crumbling empire lost ground to more secular-minded influences in England and the United States. As the artist’s reputation began to falter, even his documentary paintings became objects of derision. Rather than sweet and emotive, Murillo’s depictions of beggars and paupers were dismissed as unrealistic and saccharine. Romantic masters such as Francisco de Goya had rewritten the rules for edgy documentary art, while a new breed of modernists, led by Édouard Manet and later Pablo Picasso, preferred the vivid portraiture of Velázquez to the wispiness of Murillo.
How can he be appreciated in 2018?
A reevaluation of Murillo’s subtle genius is long overdue. Alongside the artist’s masterworks, modern critics have begun to reassess his less-heralded skills as a draughtsman and portraitist. This renaissance has been aided by the discovery of several “lost” works, including a striking portrait of the historian Don Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga found in a Welsh castle in November 2017. Quickly snapped up by the Frick, the painting was recently displayed at the New York museum alongside a duo of rare self-portraits in “Murillo: The Self-Portraits.” (The show will continue on to London’s National Gallery later this month.) It’s the first time that the two self-portraits have been shown together since 1709. “It is a unique opportunity to see them reunited,” Salomon, who co-curated the exhibition, notes.
Meanwhile, the “Año Murillo” in Seville—a public celebration of the artist’s quadricentennial organized by the city’s government—has reunited other notable Murillo paintings from across the world. The various sections of an altarpiece commissioned by a local Capuchin convent, scattered during the Napoleonic conquests of the 19th century, have been reassembled for a show at the city’s Museo de Bellas Artes. “Murillo and His Trail in Seville” at the Espacio Santa Clara studies his far-reaching influence on other painters, while the local cathedral has unveiled an exploration of his religious work. After centuries stuck in the doldrums, Murillo’s legacy is now poised to rejoin that of the Spanish greats.