A Young Man with a Basket of Fruit (Personification of 'Summer'), ca.1650
Happy New Year!
Welcome to the first post of 2013! January is a busy month for artists, with only November and July coming close for the sheer amount of artist birthdays.
Born on December 31 and baptized on January 1, 1618 in Seville, Spain, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was a giant of the Spanish Baroque era known for his flawless figures, graceful poses, and deep colors. Murillo is unique in his range of subject matter for his time, ranging from the genre of poor young boys to religious figures, lovely women and children to aristocratic portraits. Murillo may have been among the first to portray poverty after Velázquez, who was a profound influence on his work as a young artist in his twenties. However, Murillo has an optimism, a gentle quality to his work that is tender and soothing, a sort of antithesis to Caravaggio's tenebrism which was far more distopian and dark. At times this makes his work sentimental, yet considering that his parents died when he was very young and that he survived the plague in his early thirties only to witness countless deaths around him, his work maintains hope and perhaps, faith in people and the world.
In the above portrait A Young Man with a Basket of Fruit it is interesting how unusually modern Murillo's portraiture appears at times. Here is another example of Saint Peter. These models that Murillo used look like someone you could find today anywhere. The composition of this youth has a clever design in how the arm curves downward while the robe flows in the opposite direction behind his neck, creating an fascinating symmetry. Murillo's skin tones on his chest and arm are notably greenish-gray with very warm yellow highlights, warmed up only in the hands, nose, cheeks and lips. The use of a turban, complete with stalks of wheat sticking out, is also an oddly modern notion for some reason, as if put there at the last minute. What makes this also modern is the bright catchlights in the eyes, which implies the use of a reflector or mirror as is common in photography but not painting, especially in the 17 century! The tone of the sky behind him is a muted, dark purplish-blue, which balances well with the dark blue of the robe. Murillo has painted the fruit in a soft light with a perfect arrangement of color and shapes.
The Young Beggar, 1650
A hauntingly familiar image that brings to mind memories of our Neorealist cinema, here it is a young boy from the streets of Murillo's Seville. A very warm light bathes him, yet Murillo uses the green hues of the wall and the boy's clothing to contrast this intense yellow. By positioning the boy against a dark corner Murillo creates a bleak space to emphasize the poverty and enclosed world of this young beggar, yet visually it appears more interesting also. The boy is examining the inside of his ragged shirt possibly for fleas, or perhaps he is wondering what it must be like to own real clothes. The bottom of his feet are sooty, and have walked many miles up and down streets begging for food. A straw basket of fruit lays beside him, along with a tall pitcher of water. Note how Murillo has rendered the smooth skin of his legs against the tattered textures of his clothes and the rustic floor he lays on. Despite its stark reality this scene is charming, and this ability to juxtapose poverty with irreverent innocence requires a very sharp mind.
Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, 1645
Taken from the book of Genesis, Potiphar was a captain who hired Joseph to be his house-slave, which gets the attention of Potiphar's wife who lusts after him and after unsuccessfully trying to seduce him, blackmails him by telling her husband he tried to rape her. Apparently even the bible has soap opera moments. At any rate, Murillo portrays Joseph as awkwardly as possible to underline his reluctance, while the wife is forcibly grabbing at his cloak as she obviously doesn't take rejection very well. Note how Murillo uses color to tell the story here: the passionate red of her lower robe mixed with the cool white of her blouse. Joseph's yellow ochre cloak implies a definite clarity of mind and resistance from crazy, unbridled passion. The pinkish hues of his robe suggest calm and avoidance of stressful situations like this one. The empty black background also suggests this kind of romp would not have been a good idea. What is interesting is the ornate pattern of her bedspread and the area rug beneath Joseph.
Detail of Potiphar's wife
Here we see how even in this closeup Murillo creates a dynamic pose that could be a painting in itself. Note how her drapery is detailed while Joseph's barely has any folds at all.
Santa Ana enseñando a leer a la Virgen, 1655
A very Classical painting, Saint Anne is teaching the Virgin Mary to read. What is captivating about this work is not necessarily the figures per se but the drapery, in particular Saint Anne's combination of warm colors with different fabrics, emphasizing her innate wisdom. The Virgin Mary is depicted much like any regular young girl, sweet and innocent, (with a spanish face) yet the way she points to a particular passage for explanation implies a smart mind. This painting is really a study in brushstrokes and blending, with Murillo's lost and found edges, as the figures are artificially stiff and rigid for some unknown reason.
St John the Baptist as a Boy, 1665
This moving portrayal of St. John the Baptist as a young boy with the self-awareness of his destiny, painted with looser brushstrokes than the painting of Saint Anne with the Virgin Mary, nonetheless reveals his powers of expression and body language when effectively focused. Murillo's drapery once again is beautiful yet up close has no complex surprises. Note the tactile texture of the lamb beside him. Murillo's muted background tones and the adjacent rock reveal that the way light falls on an object or distant scene is more important than palette choice.
Three Boys, 1660's
A familiar triangle composition, Murillo's scene is modern in the sense of pluralism that Seville apparently had, as it was quite rare to see blacks in paintings except in the context of slavery or in African nobility. Note how the boy to the right has no shoes while the black boy does. A muted palette dominates this mood despite the lightheartedness, only warming up in the skin tones of the boy on the right. The next painter to depict children with this level of insight and technical ability would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau in the 1800's, two hundred years after Murillo.
The Flower Girl, 1670
Murillo's Classical structure is evident even in his portraits, and here this young girl is given an elegance and grace normally bestowed to aristocratic women and saints. I like the way her flowers are cupped by the ornate scarf over her shoulder...it has a spontaneous touch that is not common for portraiture. Technically, Murillo's brushwork is worth noting here, especially in the scumbling of warm tone over her dark skirt. In fact, her skin is the only area in which he deliberates with subtle blending. The faded background is vignetted in a way that looks like a backdrop for a photoshoot, as there seems to be little atmospheric perspective or depth behind her. At any rate, it is her beauty and the flowing brushstrokes of her blouse, using a contrast of warms against a very cool white, that make this portrait timeless.
Thomas of Villanova giving alms to the poor, 1678
A well-known Spanish friar and Saint, canonized merely twenty years before this painting was conceived, Santo Tomás de Villanueva's work with the poor was what prompted this commission for Murillo, one of his finest works. The polarity between Saint Thomas, here depicted as archbishop, tall and distinguished with crosier pointing to the heavens, and the beggar with tattered clothes on all fours like a dog, receiving charity, with his walking cane nearly horizontal on the step by his leg, is a stark comment on the disparity between the Church and society. Although his generosity was what made him unique, here Saint Thomas of Villanova is depicted as maintaining appearances rather than solving the real problem of poverty. To the left Murillo depicts a mother with child, who happily shows her his small coin in his tiny hand, also received by Saint Thomas, to which the mother does not appear as enthused about. Off to the right we see the young boy with what appears to be leprosy glaring at Saint Thomas, and the elder man above him stares in disbelief at the pittance in his hand; another glare comes from the elder woman behind him. This stunning criticism of a contemporary church figure makes me wonder how Murillo didn't face the Inquisition for his very sharp and justified denunciation.
The Infant Christ Distributing Bread to the Pilgrims, 1678
Beautiful skin tones and pleasing color harmony are what make this work a textbook Murillo, in the sense of what we associate him with. However, looking closely thematically here once again we see a cynical view of the Church. Why is baby Jesus giving bread to these so-called pilgrams, who clearly don't appear to need it? Wouldn't Christ be offering this to the poor? Bread, as depicted here full of color and warmth, implies a monetary or material benefit and not one of spiritual significance or holy communion as Christ is only a child here. Note the glum expressions of the Virgin Mary, Christ and the angel. Murillo nonetheless paints wonderfully here with cool greys in the shadows of Christ, the face of Mary and in the arm of the angel holding the basket.
Bodas de Caná, 1672
This familiar New Testament scene of the wedding at Cana is depicted here in full extravagance. The servant, painted flawlessly here, pours water into the jugs while another disciple asks if Jesus will do something about the lack of wine. The expression of Jesus is one of honesty, and Murillo is saying here that true faith is the essence of change, or miracles, not magic or spectacle. Noted as being the first miracle of Jesus in according to the Gospel of John, Murillo has instead reinterpreted the wealth of the upper middle class as not needing any more than they already have, as evidenced by the desserts on the table. Even today, modern theologians debate whether he in fact changed water into wine or whether the meaning is allegorical. Indeed, the seeming absence of wine glasses altogether suggests a spiritual emptiness in society.
Santa Justa en Santa Rufina, 1666
Saints Justa and Rufina are martyrs from Seville who were tortured and killed for refusing to renounce their belief in God. Read more about them here. Here they are depicted together holding the Giralda, a medieval bell tower of the cathedral of Seville of which Justa and Rufina are guardians of. The pottery at their feet are symbols of their work and the foundation of their principles and martyrdom.
The Vision of Saint Francis of Paola, ca.1670
This subject has special significance for me as I visited Paola in Italy more than once with my relatives, and Saint Francis, or San Francisco as we call him, is the patron saint of Calabria, our region. It is interesting that a Spaniard like Murillo would paint him, which must be a testament to how Murillo felt about this saint's life and work (as compared to Thomas of Villanova). Murillo paints him in a more traditional style, in a simple robe on his knees, a humble servant of God who was never ordained as a priest. In the far distance the ocean symbolizes his patronage of seamen also. What is more fascinating about him is that he was another recent figure, having lived during the 1400's (it is interesting to know if Da Vinci had ever heard of him). Murillo paints his face with a certain recognizability, not divine or inspired but the face of an honest man. The textures of the hair and beard are brushed in with effortless perfection. Above the swarm of glowing angels the latin inscription reads charitas, meaning love of God and charity. Hope prevails here, and Murillo must have felt good in celebrating a real hero of the Church, even if he purportedly did miracles. The main point is the work behind the faith, not merely stories. And in Murillo's life, art is not necessarily about trying to change the world but in at least seeing it honestly and personally, celebrating those that deserve it and not only society's heroes.