An interesting problem that museums must frequently face: how to commemorate artists who have been relegated, for one reason or another, to the second tier of history? Those lesser-known practitioners of paint whose names don’t bolster admission numbers, whose art draws neither public throngs nor the approving attention of critics and scholars. Consider, for instance, the case of the Baroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. This Spaniard won prestigious church commissions throughout his career in seventeenth-century Seville and was for nearly two hundred years considered Spain’s greatest painter. His reputation, however, fell sharply thereafter, at the same time that avant-garde artists, notably among them Manet and later Picasso, began to uphold what they saw as proto-modern tendencies in painters such as Velázquez and El Greco, and to vilify the easy beauty of Murillo. Today, though his works are still held in museums across the globe, Murillo is all but forgotten by the casual enthusiast.

Approaching the fourth centennial of Murillo’s birth, the moment is perhaps ripe for a large-scale reevaluation of Murillo’s worth. The Frick Collection’s new exhibition, “Murillo: The Self-Portraits,” however, aims elsewhere, instead choosing to bring light to a group of understudied paintings with surprising appeal.1 By centering on two curious self-portraits, the only ones Murillo ever painted, the Frick’s Chief Curator Xavier Solomon has organized a focused, scholarly exhibition in the museum’s downstairs gallery that unites a number of never-before-seen works and raises thoughtful questions about both painting and art history.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Self-Portrait, ca. 1650–55, Oil on canvas, The Frick Collection.

Church records show that Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was baptized on January 1, 1618 in Seville. At the age of ten, both his parents died, and he moved in with his older sister and brother-in-law, who were just starting a family of their own. Two years later, the boy entered the workshop of Juan del Castillo, then a prominent painter in Seville who now is chiefly remembered for his connection to Murillo. Bartolomé spent about a decade under the tutelage of Castillo before striking out on his own in 1644, launching what would be a prolific thirty-seven-year career.

Murillo left his native Seville for a significant period only once—in 1658 for a months-long trip to Madrid, during which he met Velázquez and Zurbarán and encountered the works of older masters, notably among them Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck. This lone trip out of Seville inspired Murillo to soften his paintings: to use glowing colors and to avoid the expressive use of the heavily laden brush. Set on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, Seville was a primary waypoint between the New and Old Worlds and thus one of Europe’s major centers of trade. Built over the ancient Roman city of Hispalis, Seville held more Roman architectural ruins than any city in Spain, lending an aura of antiquity to its vibrant and cosmopolitan cultural scene.

Considered an elite painter in Seville during his lifetime, Murillo’s star continued to rise after his death in 1682.

Considered an elite painter in Seville during his lifetime, Murillo’s star continued to rise after his death in 1682. His posthumous ascension, as the exhibition demonstrates, can be largely attributed to the surge in the publishing of art history books and artist biographies that took place at the same time. Clearly, his inclusion in many of these canon-forging collections of “artist’s lives” made Murillo a household name throughout Europe and the Americas. Both his rugged but intimate street urchins and his radiant, ethereal depictions of the immaculate Virgin Mary were massively popular with the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century European public.

Jean-Baptiste-Charles Carbonneau, after Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (From Charles Blanc, Histoire des peintres de toutes les Ecoles), 1869, Engraving on paper, Private collection.

Murillo was soon recognized as the greatest Spanish painter ever (Velázquez was hardly known outside his home country). His work traveled extensively and was copied prolifically. His paintings drew particular demand from Englishmen: it is said that by 1882, there were more original Murillos in the United Kingdom than in Spain. At the same time, however, the massive popular appeal and frequent reproduction of his work created an image of the artist that proved objectionable to an audience increasingly receptive to avant-garde modernism. The “vaporous” quality of Murillo’s paintings, that divine haze and liquescent color once praised unanimously by viewers, was suddenly derided as vapid sentimentalism.

“Murillo: The Self-Portraits” unites the Spaniard’s  two self-portraits to inquire into their idiosyncratic formal constructions and their role in the development of his posthumous renown

As its name might suggest, “Murillo: The Self-Portraits” does not focus on these more polarizing works by the Andalusian painter—his tramps and immaculate ecclesiastical works—but instead unites his two self-portraits to inquire into their idiosyncratic formal constructions and their role in the development of his posthumous renown. The exhibition is organized across two adjacent rooms, one self-portrait per room. Its curators have separated the two works to emphasize their chronology—the first was painted early in his career ca. 1650–55, the second as a mature artist ca. 1670—but have also cleverly positioned them on a central axis in the space, so that on a quiet day one may see both from the same vantage point in the interceding hallway. Given that the exhibition is the first time the two self-portraits have been shown together since 1709, when the estate of Murillo’s last surviving son was sold off, placing the works in this sort of conversation seems especially important.

Murillo’s first self-portrait, bought by Henry Clay Frick in 1904 and recently donated by his family to the Frick Collection, gives no indication to its viewer that its subject is a painter, nor that the picture is in fact a self-portrait. The inscription at the bottom, which identifies the subject as “maximi pictoris” (“a famous painter”) was added posthumously to the painting. Murillo dons the garb of an upper-class Spanish hidalgo, wearing a white golilla collar and an expensive black overshirt with decoratively slit sleeves. The painted costume would have looked even more ornamental at its creation than it appears now: technical analysis suggests that the thin layers of lead white paint that Murillo used to suggest detail in his clothes and hair have largely deteriorated. Nevertheless, the picture shows a striking and virile man in his prime. Take the word of the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt, whose glowing 1843 review of the work gives a sense for Murillo’s rapturous popularity at that moment:

Murillo is still one of the greatest who ever lived. Here hangs his portrait (by his own hand). It is the key to all his works. . . . Look at these splendid, slightly pouting lips! Do they not reveal the man of action! These slightly retracted nostrils, these flashing eyes under the splendid wrathfully arching eyebrows, this whole face, is it not an arsenal of passions? . . . by its sides, the most beautiful jet-black locks flow down. Happy the woman who has been loved by this man! His mouth has kissed a lot, I believe.

As to the portrait, not much more, I believe, can—or should—be said. Equally interesting (though perhaps less titillating) is the strange stone conceit in which Murillo’s image is placed. The portrait is framed within a bulky chunk of stone, which itself rests on another stone slab. This spatial organization, the exhibition’s curators say, is entirely unique to Murillo and was never repeated by the painter himself. The stone’s chipped and weathered surface alludes to the ancient Roman ruins that were ubiquitous in Murillo’s Seville, emphasizing the painter’s confidence in his skill and his aspirations for long-lasting renown. Though the blocks appear now to sit in a dark and bare interior, technical study of the painting has uncovered that the entire top right of the image was originally painted with smalt, a cobalt-based blue pigment notorious for degrading into brown over time. As such, we know that Murillo originally set the portrait frame outside, which surely would have further emphasized its connection to the Roman ruins just outside the urban limits of Seville. The painting has also been cropped slightly from its original dimensions, which accounts for its slightly unbalanced composition.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Juan Arias de Saavedra, 1650, Oil on canvas, Collection Duchess of Cardona.

Hung elsewhere in this first room, engravings of the Frick’s self-portrait and nineteenth-century art history books in which these engravings are reproduced provide further context for the two self-portraits’ central role in the posthumous circulation of Murillo’s name across Europe.

There is also Murillo’s earliest-known portrait, of Juan Arias de Saavedra y Ramírez de Arellano, a nobleman and knight of the Order of Santiago (1650). Its inclusion marks the first time the painting has been shown publicly. The work was cleaned and restored by the workshops of the Prado Museum just this year, giving us a dramatically improved product that highlights the original artistry of Murillo. Implementing a more commonly used stone cartouche conceit that symbolically combines the solidity of Seville’s Roman ruins with the decorative but ephemeral quality of book frontispieces, the painting’s composition is as ornate as its sitter is austere. The intricate design includes a tablet inscription, on which Murillo deferentially lists Saavedra’s great accomplishments, such as his proclivity for “deterring and coercing slanderous infidels during the sacred Spanish Inquisition,” as well as his connoisseurship of the liberal arts and of painting.

Having avoided the injurious material alterations that beset Murillo’s first self-portrait, his second (on loan from the National Gallery, London, where the show will next travel) is ultimately the more interesting and complex work. The design of the cartouche itself is well-composed and tastefully ornate compared to the weathered, heavy slab in which the younger Murillo sits. The National Gallery portrait also seems more psychologically penetrating and emotionally complex. Satisfied with his successes at the mature age of fifty-two, the painter has let his hair down, wears a looser collar, and freely displays the tools of his profession: a drawing, a chalk holder, a compass and ruler, his palette and brushes. His back eye falls ever-so-slightly in the shade, making the gaze of the portrait feel more deeply searching than the assertive glare of his first try. Finally, in an illusion-bending move, Murillo’s right hand protrudes out from the fictive plane of the frame and rests on the stone cartouche itself. By breaking the conceit that he has set up for the viewer, Murillo brandishes his ability to deceive with paint at the same moment that he calls the whole thing off.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Self-Portrait, ca. 1670, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London.

This right hand is the centerpiece in a room organized around the theme of trompe l’oeil, to which Murillo returned a number of times by different means. Murillo didn’t invent trompe l’oeil—it dates, as we know by the ancient story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, as far back as the earliest examples of Western perspective. Nor did he invent this particular use of the hand-on-frame deceit. Several similar images from the period predate Murillo’s second self-portrait. Nonetheless, the concept confounds the spatial logic of the image, thus rendering it more formally compelling. By disrupting the imagined barrier between the two spaces, Murillo creates a more obvious and confident triangulation of focal points within composition, between his face, his drawing tools (symbolizing disegno), and his painting palette (symbolizing colore).

Trompe l’oeil, much like Murillo himself, is a perhaps under-discussed topic, despite the significant conceptual issues it directly raises and despite its prominent role in the history of representational art. Two Women at the Window (ca. 1650–55), one of Murillo’s most famous paintings and here on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, is a prime example. As its title suggests, the painting shows two teenaged girls sitting over an open windowsill, gazing out directly towards the viewer. Murillo’s invocation of quadratura painting (the Renaissance practice of “opening up” walls by feigning architecture to suggest a false depth behind it) and the girls’ unabashed stares implicate both the viewer and the gallery wall in the theatrics of the image. The picture is beautiful for its realism, but here more than elsewhere the effect of the illusion, which proposes to bridge the gap between painting and wall, was abated by the gallery’s distracting magenta moiré backing.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Two Women at a Window, ca. 1655–60, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Engaged in quadratura in a similar manner is Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill (ca. 1675), who looks to the right at a complementary portrait of a young girl that, unfortunately, has not been included in the exhibition. The beautifully rendered wedding portrait of Nicolás Omazur (1672), a Flemish collector and one of Murillo’s chief patrons, also hangs in the gallery. In it, Omazur holds a skull, a memento mori, that symbolizes for the occasion, in accordance with the grisly religious mores of seventeenth-century Spain, the inescapability of death.

Fellow institutions would do well to emulate the Frick’s consistent eagerness to program this sort of exhibition.

Against the reductively hyperbolic assessments of Murillo’s career that have followed his name since the seventeenth century, “Murillo: The Self-Portraits” dispassionately presents a small but intellectually valuable group of paintings. With an erudite, scholarly, and object-centered focus that leaves to the side any hazardous consideration of legacy, the Frick has risen above the critical fog that surrounds this painter and his works. In so doing, the museum has given us a digestable exhibition that encourages slow and deliberate looking, and has brought to our attention a body of paintings we would have almost certainly missed otherwise. Fellow institutions would do well to emulate the Frick’s consistent eagerness to program this sort of exhibition.

1 “Murillo: The Self-Portraits” opened at The Frick Collection, New York, on November 1, 2017 and remains on view through February 4, 2018.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 53
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