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It’s time to return Murillo to the canon of the greats

25 January 2019

In mid December I attended a friend’s pre-Christmas drinks. I got talking to someone who, it transpired, is an art critic at a national newspaper. We politely discussed various projects until my current research at the Wallace Collection came up. At the mention of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo my fellow party-goer scoffed: ‘Oh that sentimental, saccharine bullshit, don’t tell me you’re studying him!’. How is it that an artist lauded by Hegel for his revolutionary class-defying subjects, and whose Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables held the record for the world’s most expensive painting for much of the 19th century, has been reduced to this? And how can a reputation that has suffered so much and for so long be rehabilitated?

The problem is that we assume that we know Murillo – he is the one that does those street urchins and the Immaculate Conception, the cute cherubs and baby John the Baptists. In recent years there have been efforts to reclaim Murillo’s reputation, with contextualising exhibitions such as ‘Murillo and Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship’ at the Prado in 2012 or the focused ‘Murillo: the Self Portraits’ at the Frick in New York and the National Gallery in London (2017–18). And in 2018 Seville declared the Año Murillo, a city-wide celebration in honour of his 400th birthday. The programme has been varied – from grand restoration projects and exhibitions to concerts, public art initiatives and a 20-stop trail through the city. It is estimated that at least two million people have participated in the Año Murillo so far (events continue this spring).

It is fitting that such a celebration should happen in Seville. Murillo was baptised in the city on 1 January 1618, and he stayed there for his entire life, leaving only for a couple of short trips, in the 1640s and 1658, to Madrid and for work in nearby Cádiz. While his commitment to the city is unquestionable – unlike that of its other great son Diego Velázquez – Seville has not always reciprocated this love. By the 20th century 90 per cent of Murillo paintings had left the city, bought up by European collectors or plundered during the Peninsular War (1807–14) by the infamous Marshal Soult. What remained were a few large canvases and many, many copies. The perception of Murillo was thus tainted and diluted by the pastiches spread throughout the city. As such, the Año Murillo can be seen as a way for Sevillians to reconnect with the true artist rather than these insubstantial echoes.

The Marriage Feast at Cana (c. 1672), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Marriage Feast at Cana (c. 1672), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts © The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

The most impressive of the many projects is the retrospective ‘Murillo: IV Centenario’ at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (until 17 March). Fifty-five paintings, two thirds of which are returning to Seville for the first time since the 19th century, offer an overview of his diverse and often surprising oeuvre. The thematic approach taken by the curators, María del Valme Muñoz and Ignacio Cano, emphasises Murillo’s constant reinvention of subject, as well as demonstrating his variety of technique. His early paintings, such as The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1650), show the clear influence of Zurbarán, and you would be forgiven for mistaking The Penitent Saint Jerome (c. 1650) as a work by Jusepe de Ribera. His later works, meanwhile, can be seen for the compositional tours de force they are. The Marriage Feast at Cana (c. 1672) is a master class in directing the gaze. Figures exchange glances and your eyes travel from the foreground servant to the groom – likely a portrait of the patron Nicolas Omazur – to Christ, who in turn gestures to an amphora.

Also at the Bellas Artes, a now-closed exhibition reconstructed Murillo’s multi-canvas commission for the Capuchin convent in Seville: the monumental altarpiece The Jubilee of the Porziuncola (1665–68), from the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, was cleaned for the occasion and reunited with the 18 other paintings in the series. Another project is ‘Aplicación Murillo: Materialism, Charitas y Populismo’ (until 3 March), a five-venue contemporary response to Murillo. Pedro G. Romero, Joaquín Vázquez and Luis Martínez Montiel have curated a rich commentary on his paintings, featuring around 600 works by artists from Andalucía, the rest of Spain and beyond. Concepts of purity and virginity in Murillo’s Immaculate Conception imagery are confronted in the large felt-and-steel sculpture House of Vetti II (1983) by Robert Morris, and the glare-ridden images of Oriol Vilapuig’s Visages y meneos (Inmaculadas y manos). Like those at the Bellas Artes, this exhibition aims to dismantle the fallacies surrounding Murillo, here emphasising his relevance to current artistic production, and illustrating his continuing influence on artists.

The Penitent Saint Jerome (c. 1650), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Museo del Prado

The Penitent Saint Jerome (c. 1650), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Museo del Prado

However, to truly understand Murillo’s genius you need only two paintings: Moses Striking the Rock (1670–74) and The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (1670–74), both at the Hospital de la Caridad. I saw these six months ago in the sweltering summer heat of Seville. They were hung low, having just come out of a conservation studio – their first full cleaning in more than a century. They had received the full works, from X-ray fluorescence mapping to scanning using Factum Arte’s Lucida 3D laser scanner. Old photos show the canvases slathered with varnish so yellow and thick the paintings appear almost monochrome, but now they are vibrant and full of dynamism. In Moses Striking the Rock a hoard of parched children, adults and dogs scramble over one another to reach the miraculous water; a young peasant woman turns in the act of scooping water to make eye contact with a wealthy nobleman, and an ass takes advantage of the distraction to drink from her bowl; a little girl lifts up her cup asking for water from a man whose vessel is already full; a boy points to Moses, who stands calm as still water in the centre of the scene. In the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes Murillo takes a sweeping view, painting the crowds with a looseness of brushwork unmatched even by late Velázquez.

Moses Striking the Rock (1670–74), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Hospital de la Caridad

Moses Striking the Rock (pre-restoration; 1670–74), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Hospital de la Caridad

These two paintings have never left Seville. They have hung high on the walls of the Caridad for almost 350 years. Looking at them now, returned to their ornate black-and-gold frames on the church wall, I wonder if they were the works that inspired the young Benjamin Disraeli to write with such urgency and passion: ‘Run my dear fellow to Seville and for the first time in your life know what a great artist is – Murillo, Murillo, Murillo!’

Isabelle Kent is the Enriqueta Harris Frankfort curatorial assistant at the Wallace Collection, London.