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Birth And Early Life Of Murillo

( Originally Published 1882 )



Birth and early life in Seville.—Afoot to Madrid.--Introduction to Velazquez.—Return to Seville.—Alonso Cano.

BARTOLOME ESTEBAN MURILLO was born at Seville, probably on the last day of December, 1617, and was baptized on the first day of January, 1618. His father, Gaspar Esteban, was a simple mechanic, living in Seville in a house which had formerly belonged to a convent; it was let to him at a low rent on condition that he kept it in repair, and this proved to be a heavy tax both upon himself, and afterwards upon his son. In this modest home the man, in whom all the glories of Spanish art were one day to be united, came into the world. His mother's name was Maria Perez. In some districts of Andalusia it was customary to assume the surname of relatives, and even that of the god-parents. It is uncertain whether he adopted the name of Murillo from his father's or mother's side, but according to a genealogical document found amongst the archives of Seville Cathedral the name appears only in his father's family.

Very little is known of his early years. Like many other great artists, he showed the bent of his mind when a child by covering his school books and the school-room walls with drawings. His parents died before he was eleven years old, leaving him to the guardianship of a surgeon of the name of Juan Agustin Lagares, who had married his aunt, Dona Anna Murillo. The boy was probably soon afterwards apprenticed to Juan del Castillo, his uncle, a master of ordinary ability, and formerly pupil of Juan Fernandez, in whose workshop Herrera and Pacheco were also educated. Juan del Castillo's school attained great reputation ; his style was fresh, and although his colouring was inclined to hardness, he was highly esteemed for his excellent drawing. From his paintings now in the Provincial Museum at Madrid, it is evident that, beyond the so-called " correct drawing," his pupils could have profited little from his teaching. Under his guidance, however, Murillo made his first steps in the career of an artist. His gentle nature and anxiety to learn soon made him a favourite with his master and fellow-students. Castillo took especial pains with his instruction, but did not allow him to omit any of the tedious and uninteresting details of grinding colours, preparing and cleaning brushes, and other ordinary work of an artist's pupil.

There was no public academy in Seville where art was scientifically taught, but each master of note had his own school, and was assisted by other friendly artists, who, in common with the pupils, shared the expenses of lighting and heating the atelier during the winter. The master sketched portions of the human figure with chalk, pen, or brush for the pupils to copy, or provided fragments of antique sculpture for models, and a rude lay-figure on which drapery was hung. Occasionally, if he was employed upon some important work, a living model was engaged, or, if this were too expensive, one or other of the pupils offered to sit, so that each student had an opportunity of studying from nature. No pupil was allowed to paint from the living model until he had worked for a long time at the lay-figure, and those who had not talent to rise to the highest region of art were obliged to be content with painting fruit, flowers, and bodegones, to which latter pieces much time was given by the students. It was also the custom for beginners to paint first of all upon coarse linen, or sarga; the best productions were used at festivals to decorate the altars, walls, and pillars of churches, or were hung in the houses of Andalusian grandees. This style of decorative painting was very serviceable, because it required knowledge of anatomy, great boldness of design, and proficiency in rapid outline drawing. The system, however, fell into disuse at the beginning of the century, when Herrera, Roelas, and especially Velazquez, adopted the plan of painting all their subjects direct from nature. A praiseworthy rivalry existed between the different schools, and it was constantly stimulated by the patronage of religious bodies and exalted personages, by commissions from speculators in the colonial trade, and also by literary criticisms and poetical comments which public exhibitions called forth.

Murillo availed himself of all means of improvement, and soon painted as well as his master. While still in Castillo's school he executed two oil paintings, the Virgin with St. Francis, for the Convent de Regina, and the Virgin del Rosario with St. Domingo, for the church of St. Thomas, Seville ; both school pictures in strict imitation of his master's hard, dry style.

In 1640 Juan del Castillo went to reside in Cadiz, and Murillo was left without his friend and adviser, and in needy circumstances. For two years he had a struggle for existence. There were so many artists at that time in Seville that only the works of the most celebrated could be sold at anything like a remunerative price. Murillo was then quite unknown to fame, of a shy, retiring disposition, without any influential patron to bring him into notice and his only resource was to paint rough, showy pictures for the Feria, a weekly market, held in front of the Church of All Saints, where he took his stand at stalls of eatables and old clothes, among groups of gipsies and muleteers. For a painting to be called " una pintura da feria" was far from complimentary, for the purchasers were of the lowest class, who delighted in bright colours, without a care for correctness of design. This necessity to work for so inferior a class of buyers was not the hard fate of Murillo alone, for many of the Sevillian painters of fame in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had begun their artist life in the same lowly way. It was the custom to bring brushes and colours into the fair, and to paint or alter the subject of a picture according to order. Many of these rough works were purchased for the colonies. As he stood in the market-place waiting for customers, Murillo had every opportunity of studying the habits and characteristics of the little beggar-boys who swarmed in the streets of Seville, and who appear so often and so true to the life upon his canvas. Still he was destined for some-thing better than this.

Pedro de Moya, a fellow-pupil of Murillo in Castillo's school, having found the restraints of the workshop too irksome, joined the Spanish Infantry then campaigning in Flanders. His love of painting, however, was revived when he saw the works of the Flemish artists ; he threw aside his arms and went to London to study under Van Dyck. Early in 1642, after that master's death, Moya returned to Seville vastly improved by his six months with the Fleming ; he brought with him copies of several paintings by Van Dyck, and also of many works which he saw in the Netherlands. These, together with his accounts of all he had seen, and his own rapid improvement in style, so fired the ambition of Murillo that he became discontented with his circumscribed position, and resolved if possible to visit Rome. In order to obtain money for the accomplishment of his design he bought a piece of linen, divided it into squares of different sizes, and painted upon them attractive saints, bright landscapes, groups of flowers, fruit, and other subjects which suited the taste of eager purchasers. He proceeded to make suitable provision for his sister by placing her under the care of some relatives, and then, without a word about his intention, went away over the Sierras on foot to Madrid, a long and tedious journey. Arriving there without money, without friends, without anything, in fact, but a stock of indomitable courage—he went first of all to Velazquez, his fellow-townsman, the court painter to Philip IV., to ask advice and obtain letters of introduction to artists in Rome. Velazquez, who was at the height of his power, received him kindly, questioned him about Seville, his master, and his intentions. He was so taken with Murillo's answers and pleased with his manners that he offered him an asylum in his own house, an offer which was gratefully accepted. Velazquez was a favourite with the King, and in a position to be of great service to his protege.

Philip, a careless and indifferent monarch, was a man of good ability, a patron of literature and art, whose chief glory was to discover and reward rising talent, and he had even attained considerable proficiency in painting under the instructions of Juan Bautista. The galleries of Madrid were rich in valuable pictures by old and modern masters, for it was Philip's greatest pleasure to acquire works of art, which he added to those collected by his grandfather, Philip II. ; and no money was spared to procure them, and to obtain copies of those old pictures which could not be purchased. His representatives and ambassadors were commanded to buy up all art treasures which came into the market. Moreover, a considerable number of paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck were bequeathed to the town by the Infanta Isabella, daughter of Philip II. Velazquez readily obtained for Murillo admission to the Escurial, Buenretiro, and all the royal galleries, where a new world of art was opened to the ambitious youth, and where he was permitted to copy all that he most admired.

During the summer of 1642 Velazquez was absent with the King in Aragon, whither he had gone with the intention of overawing the Catalonians, who had been driven to revolt through the unwise and unjust government of Olivarez.

Upon his return he was much pleased with some copies which Murillo had made of paintings by Ribera, Van Dyck, and Velazquez himself, and advised him to restrict his attention to the works of those artists whom he had selected as models. Velazquez showed these copies to the King, and also introduced the young painter to the Count-Duke Olivarez, the Prime Minister.

The supremacy of Olivarez in Spain lasted twenty-two years; his administration was prejudicial to the country, and that, as well as his conspiracy against the life of the King of Portugal, has made his memory hateful; but he was always a true friend to art and literature, partly from personal predilection, and partly in order to divert the mind of the King from the discontent of his people. In him Velazquez had found a powerful protector when he first arrived at court, and now he wished to gain the Duke's favour for Murillo. Both artists showed their gratitude for past kindness by remaining faithful to the minister when he was in disgrace and banishment.

In 1643—1644 Velazquez was again absent with the King in the northern campaign, but after the successful siege of Lerida the court returned to Madrid. During this time Murillo had been working with unflagging industry, in the closest study of the masterpieces in the royal galleries. Velazquez was astonished at the progress he had made in freedom of style and decision of colouring. He now advised him to go to Rome, offering to give him letters of introduction to the first masters in that city. But Murillo had no longer the inclination to leave his country, and he returned to Seville early in 1645, after an absence of three years. His love for his native town, " the glory of the Spanish realms," is not to be wondered at. In Murillo's time Seville yet retained much of its old grandeur, and still carried on commerce with the whole world. Until Philip II. finally established the court at Madrid, it was the capital, and many families of the ancient nobility as well as wealthy merchants resided there. Amongst the clergy were many renowned scholars, who lived on intimate terms with the artists, and who were anxious to promote their interests. In this home of art Murillo saw all that could satisfy his ambition. Poitou says, "The Spaniards boast of Seville as the pearl of their cities, and the Spaniards are not wrong." Situated as it is in the midst of a luxuriant country, with a climate which is genial all the year round, within its walls were memorials of a long historical period in Moorish and Gothic buildings, a splendid cathedral still unrivalled, near to it the Moorish belfry La Giralda with its lace-like stonework, innumerable churches, the royal palace of the Alcazar with its treasures of art, and the imposing Longa, or Exchange.

Murillo's residence with Velazquez in Madrid, which was then the centre of refinement and splendour, afforded him the advantage of frequent intercourse with the principal painters in that city, and with provincial artists who came to the capital. Pacheco, whose daughter Velazquez had married, was a frequent visitor at the house of his son-in-law. There, too, was Alonso Cano, one of the most remark-able characters in Madrid, a pupil of Pacheco, and also of Castillo. He had fled thither to escape punishment for having wounded a fellow-artist in a duel.

Alonso Cano was an architect, sculptor and painter—the Michelangelo of Spain. Some pieces of sculpture, commenced by his father and completed by himself, made' his name famous. Palomino says, that artists had been known to come all the way from Flanders to copy them. During his residence in Madrid he renewed his acquaintance with his fellow-student Velazquez, who obtained for him the favour of Olivarez, and through him he received commissions to superintend public works in the royal palaces, churches, and convents ; he was also appointed instructor to the young prince. But again he almost ruined his prospects ; his crime this time was the murder of his wife. He took refuge in a Franciscan convent in Valencia, and then in a retired monastery on the Sierras. At length he ventured to return to Madrid, where he was seized and tortured, but pleaded exemption for his right hand, which request was granted by the King, the willing protector of a good artist. As Cano passed through the ordeal without uttering a cry he was pronounced innocent. Eventually he went to live in his native city, Granada, took priest's orders, and through Philip's intervention obtained a minor canonry. He now employed his talents for the benefit of the cathedral, which he embellished with exquisite carvings and paintings. The canons, who were displeased at his election, tried their utmost to depose him, but the King again befriended him. Cano never forgave the Chapter for this attempt, and never resumed his chisel or brush for the service of the cathedral. His last days were spent in great poverty, for he gave all he possessed to the sick and poor. His character was full of contradictions. As a painter he was excelled by few Andalusians, and his numerous pupils formed what is called the school of Granada.



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