Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 'The Immaculate conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes', 1660-65. Oil on canvas, 274 x 190 cm, Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. At the height of what one British magazine had called ‘Murillo-mania’, the Sevillian artist’s masterpiece The Immaculate Conception (1660–65) was sold for a small fortune at auction in 1852 to the Louvre, whose 586,000 franc bid beat off competition from the Queen of Spain and the Tsar of Russia. During the nineteenth-century, this representation of the Virgin surrounded by tumbling angels was one of the most praised and popular works of an artist who had become one of the most coveted and copied in Europe.
How tastes change. In 2013 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, while recognised as a major figure of Spanish Golden Age art, has been eclipsed in the minds of connoisseurs by Diego Velázquez – as well as perhaps by his predecessor in Seville, Francisco de Zurbarán – and is certainly one of the lesser-known Old Masters when it comes to wider public recognition.
An exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has travelled from the Prado in Madrid and Seville’s Hospital de los Venerables (formerly an institution for poor and retired priests), gives a rare chance for us to reconsider his worth. Across the city, the Wallace Collection takes the opportunity to present for free its important collection of Murillos.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 'The Infant Saint John the Baptist with the Lamb', 1660-65. Oil on canvas, 164 x 106 cm, The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1953. The Dulwich show focuses on his relationship with his main patron, the canon Justino de Neve, who commissioned the artist to paint religious works for the Santa María la Blanca church as well as Los Venerables. The opening room, which is the highlight of the exhibition, displays high above the visitor three of the lunettes Murillo painted for the Santa María la Blanca.
These include The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome: The Dream of the Patrician and his Wife (1664–65) that demonstrates how the Baroque artist, by the 1660s, had mastered two different styles of painting - both a hard-edged highly realistic mode and an estilo vaporoso (‘vaporous style’) characterised by looser brushstrokes that have some of the lightness and grace of the Rococo period to come. The former style here is interrupted by the latter: while husband and wife sleep in a scene rendered in illusionistic perspective and dramatic chiaroscuro, a vaporous vision of the Virgin and child appears above.
The aforementioned Immaculate Conception, which has since left the Louvre for a new home at the Prado, is another work worth the train journey to Dulwich. As cupids tumble in the clouds around her – each child painted in seemingly accurate perspective while they writhe – the Virgin ascends, the bottom of her dress hooked on a crescent moon. From the blue shroud wrapped around the Virgin from top right to left, echoing the waterfall of cupids, to the individual expressions of each child, each area of the canvas has been executed with immense skill.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 'Three Boys', c. 1670. Oil on canvas, 168.3 x 109.8 cm, By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
But as undoubtedly strong as such works are, others in the show left me cold and made me understand why the artist is less prominent in today’s tastes. In the context of Murillo’s less twee paintings, the National Gallery’s The Infant Saint John the Baptist with a Lamb (1660–65) looks just as chocolate-box as ever, and the artist’s late vaporous style, when applied to mortals rather than heavenly creatures in portraits like Spring (Flower Girl) (1665–70), seems far too sentimental.
And Dulwich’s two ‘Beggar Boy’ paintings – Invitation to a Game of Argolla (1665–70) and Three Boys (c.1670) – may have been highly acclaimed during the nineteenth century, spawning imitations by artists of all levels in mediums as various as oil, etching, textile and wallpaper, but today the originals and copies in the exhibition have little visual interest and little to say about the experience of the poor. The fact that they inspired British artists two hundred years later says less about Murillo than how partial a view the Victorians had of the poverty around them.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine