One of the strangest pictures in the history of seventeenth-century European painting is dominated by an old woman staring at us through enormous, surprisingly modern-looking glasses, seated in the right corner of a large canvas. She cradles a small boy, his buttocks partly exposed by a rip in his trousers, his head resting on her lap. On the left side of the picture, a well-dressed young man leans in, smirking or perhaps laughing. Beside him, a girl lifts her headdress and offers a rather nasty crooked smile. Who are these people, what is their connection to one another, and what is going on? To scrutinize this perplexing, unforgettable image, we must visit the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, where Four Figures on a Step, painted about 1658–60 by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–82), is among the high points of the museum’s sumptuous...

 

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