1902 Encyclopedia > Bartolemé Esteban Murillo

Bartolemé Esteban Murillo
Spanish painter
(c. 1618- c. 1680)

BARTOLEMÉ ESTEBAN MURILLO (1617-1682), the greatest ecclesiastical painter of Spain, was the son of Gaspar Esteban Murillo and Maria Perez, and was born at Seville in 1617, probably at the very end of the year, as he was baptized on 1st January 1618. Esteban-Murillo appears to have been the compound surname of the father, but some inquirers consider that, in accordance with a frequent Andalusian custom, the painter assumed the surname of his maternal grandmother, Elvira Murillo, in addition to that of his father. His parents (of whom nothing distinct is known, save that they were of a humble class), having been struck with the precocious sketches with which the unlettered boy was accustomed to adorn whatever available surface came in his way, wisely resolved to place him under the care of their distant relative, Juan del Castillo, the painter, Juan, a correct draughtsman and dry colourist, taught him all the mechanical parts of his profession with extreme care, and Murillo proved himself an apt and docile pupil. The artistic appliances of his master’s studio were by no means abundant, and were often of the simplest kind. A few casts, some stray fragments of sculpture, and a lay figure formed the principal aids available in those days for the Sevillian student of art. A living model was a luxury generally beyond the means of the school, but on great occasions the youths would strip in turn and proffer an arm or a leg to be studied by their fellows. Objects of still life, however, were much studied by Murillo, and he early learned to hit off the ragged urchins of Seville pursuing their adventures in the market-place. Murillo in a few years painted as well as his master, and as stiffly. His two pictures of the Virgin, executed during this period, show how thoroughly he had mastered the style, with all its defects. Castillo was a very kind man, but his removal to Cadiz in 1639-40 threw his favourite pupil entirely upon his own resources. The fine school of Zurbaran was too expensive for the poor lad; his parents were either dead or too poor to help him and he was compelled to earn his bread by painting rough pictures for the "feria" or public fair of Seville. The religious daubs exposed at that mart were generally of as low an order as the prices paid for them by their rude purchasers. A "pintura de la feria" (a picture for the fair) was a proverbial expression for an execrably bad one; yet the street painters who thronged the market-place with their "clumsy saints and unripe Madonnas" not unfrequently rose to be able and even famous artists. This rough-and-ready practice, partly for the market-place, partly for converts in Mexico and Peru, for whom Madonnas and popular saints were produced and shipped off by the dozen increased Murillo’s manual dexterity; but, if we may judge from the picture of the Virgin and Child still shown in the Murillo-room at Seville as belonging to this period, he made but little improvement in colouring or in general strength of design. Struck by the favourable change with travel had wrought upon the style of his brother artist Pedro de Moya, Murillo in 1642 resolved to make a journey to Flanders or Italy in quest of further insight into art. But how was he, already struggling for existence and with a poor sister dependent on him, to raise the means necessary for such an expedition? Having bought a large quantity of canvas, he cut it into squares of different sizes, which he converted into pictures of a kind likely to sell. The American traders at once bought up his pieces, and he now found himself sufficiently rich to carry out his much-cherished design. He placed his sister under the care of some friends, and without divulging his plans to any one out for Madrid. On reaching the capital he waited on Velazquez, his fellowtownsman, the great court-painter, then at the summit of his fortune, and, communicating to him his simple story, asked for some introduction to friends in Rome. The master liked what he saw of the manly youth, and in the noblest manner offered him lodging in his own house, and proposed to procure him admission to the royal galleries of the capital. Murillo accepted the offer, and here enjoyed the masterpieces of Italy and Flanders without travelling beyond the walls of Madrid. The next two years were chiefly spent in copying from Ribera, Vandyck, and Velazquez; and in 1644 he so greatly astonished the latter with some of his effort that they were submitted to the inspection of the king and the court. His patron now urged him to go to Rome, and offered him letters to smooth his way; but Murillo, from whatever cause, preferred returning to his sister and his native Seville.

The friars of the convent of San Francisco in Seville had about this time piously determined to adorn the walls of their small cloister in a manner worthly of their patron saint. But the brotherhood had no money; and after endless begging they still found themselves incapable of employing an artist of name to execute the task. Murillo was needy, and offered his services; after balancing their own poverty against his obscurity the friars bade him begin. Murillo covered the walls with eleven large pictures of remarkable power and beauty, —displaying by turns the strong colouring of Ribera, the life-like truthfulness of Velazquez, and thee sweetness of Vandyck. Among them were to be found representations of San Francisco, of San Diego, of Santa Clara, and of San Gil. These pictures were executed in his earliest style, commonly called his frio or cold style. It was based chiefly on Ribera and Caravaggio, and was dark with a decided outline. This rich collectionis no longer to be met with in Seville; Marshall Soult carried off the works. The fame of these striking production soon got abroad, and "El Claustro Chico" swarmed daily with artists and critics. Murillo was no longer friendless and unknown. The rich and the noble of Seville overwhelmed him with their commissions and their praises.

In 1648 Murillo married a wealthy lady of rank, Doña Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayor, of the neighbourhood of Seville, and his house soon became the favourite resort of artists and connoisseurs. About this time he was associated with the landscape-painter Yriarte—the two artists interchanging figures and landscaped for their respective works; but they did not finally agree, and the co-operation came to an end. Murillo now painted the well-known Flight into Egypt, and shortly afterwards changed his earliest style of painting for his calido or warm style. His drawing was still well defined, but his outlines became softer and his figures rounder, and his colouring gained in warmth and transparency. His first picture of this style, according to Cean Bermudez, was a representation of Our Lady of the Conception, and was painted in 1652 for the brotherhood of the True Cross; he received for it 2500 reals (£ 26). In 1655 he executed his two famous paintings of San Leandro and San Isidoro at the order of Don Juan Federigo, archdeacon of Carmona, which are now to be seen in the cathedral of Seville. These are two noble portraits, finished with great care and admirable effect, but the critics complain of the figures being rather short. His next picture, the Nativity of the Virgin, painted for the chapter, is regarded as one of the most delightful specimens of his calido style. In the following year (1656) the same body gave him an order for a vast picture of San Antonio de Padua, for which he received 10,000 reals (£104). This is one of his most celebrated performances, and still hangs in the baptistery of the cathedral. It was "repaired" in 1833; the grandeur of the design, however, and the singular richness of the colouring may still be traced. The same year saw him engaged on four large pictures of a semicircular form, designed by his fast friend and patron Don Justino Neve y Yevenes, to adorn the walls of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca. The first two were meant to illustrate the history of the festival of Our Lady of the Snow, or the foundation of the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The one represents the wealthy but childless Roman senator and his lady asleep and dreaming; the other exhibits the devout pair relating their dream to Pope Liberius. Of these two noble paintings the Dream is the finer, and in it is to be noticed the commencement of Murillo’s third and last style, known as the vaporoso or vapoury. It should be noted, however, that the three styles are not strictly separable into date periods; for the painter alternated the styles according to his subject-matter or the mood of his inspiration, the calido being the most frequent. In the vaporoso method the well-marked outlines and careful drawing of his former styles disappear, the outlines are lost in the misty blending of the light and shade, and the general finish betrays more haste than was usual with Murillo. After many changes of fortune, these two pictures now hang in the Academy of San Fernando at Madrid. The remaining pieced executed for this small church were a Virgin of the Conception and a figure of Faith. Soult laid his hands on these also, and they have not been recovered.

In 1658 Murillo undertook and consummated a task which had hiterto baffled all the artists of Spain, and even royalty itself. This was the establishing of a public academy royalty itself. This was the establishing of a public academy of art. By superior tact and good temper he overcame the vanity of Valdes Leal and the presumption of the younger Herrera, and secured their co-operation. The Academy of Seville was accordingly for the first time in January 1660, and Murillo and the second Herrera were chosen presidents. The former second continued to direct it during the following year; but the calls of his studio induced him to leave it, now flourishing an and prosperous, in other hands.

Passing over some half-length pictures of saints and a dark-haired Madonna, painted in 1668 for the chapter-room of the cathedral of his native city, we enter upon the most splendid period of Murillo’s career. In 1661 Don Miguel Mañara Vicentelo de Leca, who had recently turned to a life of sanctity from one of the wildest profligacy, resolved to raise money for the restoration of the dilapidated Hospital de la Caridad, of whose pious guild he was himself a member. Mañara commissioned his friend Murillo to paint eleven pictures for this edifice of San Jorge. Three of these pieces represented the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, the Infant Savior, and the Infant St John. The remaining eight are considered Murillo’s masterpieces. They consist of Moses striking the Rock, the Return of the Prodigal, Abraham receiving the Three Angels, the Charity of San Juan de Dios, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Our Lord healing the Paralytic, St Peter released form Prison by the Angel, and St Elizabeth of Hungary. These works occupied the artist four years, and in 1674 he received for his eight great pictures 78, 115 reals or about £800. The Moses, the Loaves and Fishes, and the San Juan are still to be found at Seville; but the French carried off the rest. On these pictures Murillo evidently expended all his strength, and he has left in them an enduring monument of his genius. For compass and vigour the Moses stands first; but the Prodigal’s Return and the St Elizabeth were considered by Bermudez the most perfect of all as works of art. The front of this famous hospital was also indebted to the genius or Murillo; five large designs in blue glazed tiles were executed from his drawings. He had scarcely completed the undertakings for this edifice when his favourite Franciscans again solicited the aid of his pencil. He accordingly executed some twenty paintings for the humble little church known as the Convent de los Capucinos. Seventeen of these Capuchin pictures are still preserved in the Museum of Seville. Of these the Charity of St Thomas of Villanueva is reckoned the best. Murillo himself was wont to call it "su lienzo" (his own picture). Another little piece of extraordinary merit which once hung in this church, is the Virgin of the Napkin, believed to have been painted on "servilleta" and presented to the cook of the Capuchin brotherhood as a memorial of the artist’s pencil.

In 1670 Murillo is said to have declined an invention to court, preferring to labour among the brown coats of Seville. Eight years afterwards his friend the canon Justino again employed him to paint three pieces for the Hospital de los Venerables: the Mysterey of the Immaculate Conception, St Peter Weeping, and the Blessed Virgin. As a mark of esteem, Murillo next painted a full-length portrait of the canon, in which all the artist’s skill is visible. The sleek spaniel reposing at the feet of the priest has been known before now to call forth a snarl from a living dog as he approached it. His portraits generally, though few, are of great beauty. Towards the close of his Murillo executed a series of pictures illustrative of the life of "the glorious doctor" for the Augustinian convent at Seville. This brings us to the last work of the artist. Mounting a scaffolding one day at Cadiz (whither he had gone in 1681) to execute the higher parts of a large picture of the Espousal of St Catherine, on which he was engaged for the Capuchins of that town, he stumbled, and fell so violently that he received a hurt from which he never recovered. The great picture was left unfinished, and the artist returned to his beloved Seville only to die. He died as he had lived, a humble, pious, brave man, on the 3d of April 1682 in the arms of the chevalier Pedro Nuñez de Villavicencio, an intimate friend and one of his best pupils. Another of his numerous pupils was Sebastian Gomez, named "Murillo’s Multto." Murillo left behind him two sons (one of them at first an indifferent painter, afterwards a priest) and a daughter, —his wife having died before him. His body was laid in the church of Santa Cruz, which he had greatly frequented during his last illness; and by his own desire it was covered with a stone slab bearing his name, a skeleton, the words "Vive moriturus." Soult sacked this church, and nothing is to be seen of it now but a heap of rubbish.

Murillo has always been one of most popular of painters—not in Spain alone. His works show great| technical attainment without much style, and a strong feeling for ordinary nature and for truthful or sentimental expression without lofty beauty or ideal elevation. His esctasies of Madonnas and Saints, the themes of some of his most celebrated achievements, neither raise the mind nor seize upon the imagination; but they stimulate sluggish perceptions and lukewarm devoteeism, and are accepted as ravishingly pious by mobs of the fashionable and the unfashinable. Take as an example the Immaculate Conception (or Assumption of the Virgin, for the titles may, with reference to Murillo’s treatments of this subject, almost be interchanged) in the Louvre, a picture for which, on its sale from the Soult collection, perhaps the largest price on record was given in 1852, some £24,600. His subjects may be broadly divided into two great groups—the scenes from low life (which were a new kind of experiment in Spanish art, so far as the subjects of children are concerned), and the Scriptural, legendary and religious works. The former, of which some salient specimens are in the Dulwich Gallery, are, although undoubtedly truthful, neither ingenious nor sympathetic; sordid unsightliness and roguish squalor are their foundation. The children have little of the charm of childhood, and none of its auroral promise. The embodiments are accurate and knowing studies of ungainliness. Works of this class belong mostly to the years of Murillo’s practice. The subject in which the painter most eminently excels are crowded compositions in which some act saintliness, involving the ascetic or self-mortifying elements, is being performed, —subjects which, while obtrusively repulsive in some of their details, emphasize at once the broadly human and the expressly Catholic conceptions of life. A famous example it the picture, now in the Madrid academy, of St Elizabeth of Hungary washing patients afflicted with the scab or itch, and hence commonly named El Tiñoso. Technically considered, it unites has three styles of painting, more especially the cold and the warm. His power of giving atmosphere to combined groups of figures is one of the marked characteristics of Murillo’s art; and he may be said to have excelled in this respect all his predecessors or contemporaries of whatever school.

Seville must still be visited by persons who wish to study Murillo thoroughly, and to relish the full and native flavour of his art. A large number of the works which used to adorn this city have, however, been transported elsewhither. In the Royal Gallery at Madrid are forty-five specimens of Murillo—the Infant Christ and the Baptist (named Los Niños della Concha), St Ildefonso vested with a Chasuble by the Madonna, &c. ; in the Museo della Triniad, Christ and the Virgin appearing to St Francis in a Cavern, an immense composition, and various others. In the London National Gallery the chief example is the Holy Family; this was one of the master’s latest works, painted in Cadiz. Murillo, who was the last pre-eminent painter of Seville, was an indefatigable and most prolific worker, hardly leaving his painting-room save for his assiduous devotions in church; he realized large prices according to the standard of his time, and made a great fortune. His character is recorded as very amiable and soft, yet not the less independent, subject also to sudden impulses, not unmixed with gusts of passion.

For further information see, especially Stirling Annals of the Artists fo Spain, 3 vols., London, 1848 ; Richard Ford, Handbook for Spain, London, 1855; and Curtis Catalogue of the Works of Velazquez and Murillo (1883). (W. M. R.)

The above article was written by: William Michael Rossetti, Professional to Board of Inland Revenue for Estate Duty on Pictures and Drawings; author of Fine Art, chiefly contemporary, Lives of Famous Poets, Life of Keats, Dante G. Rossetti as Designer and Writer, Memoir of Dante G. Rossetti; editor of The Germ, 1850, of Shelley's Poems, of Wm. Blake's Poems, of Poems by Dante and Christina Rossetti, of Praeraphaelite Diaries and Letters, etc.

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