Murillo Period 1645-1660
( Originally Published 1882 )
Paintings in the Franciscan Convent, Seville.—Marriage with Dona Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayer.—Paintings for Seville Cathedral.
SOON after his return to Seville Murillo commenced a series of pictures with life-size figures for the small Franciscan convent near the Casa del Ayuntamiento. A sum of money had been collected by a member of their Mendicant Brotherhood, and the friars determined to expend it upon eleven paintings for the small cloister. The amount was so insignificant that none of the Sevillian masters had considered it worth their acceptance. This was just the opportunity for showing his skill for which Murillo was waiting. The Franciscans, however, hesitated to give the commission to an unknown artist, but at length consented, as no one of established fame offered to undertake the work. For the next three years he was employed upon the paintings, and when they were finished all mistrust in the artist was changed to admiration and joy, for they were a real triumph. In all of them could be seen the influence of the three years' study of the works of Ribera, Van Dyck and Velazquez. By the assimilation of the styles of all three he gradually developed one peculiarly his own, showing great power of colouring and correctness of design. While his contemporaries still kept to the tame, lifeless style as taught in the Seville schools, Murillo boldly struck out another path, with nature as his instructor ; and his name soon eclipsed those of Pacheco, Herrera, Valdes Leal and Zurbaran, which until then had been most honoured in Seville.
The subject of the first painting is St. Francis reclining upon an iron pallet, listening with a devout expression of countenance to an angel playing upon a violin. The second represents St. Diego blessing a pot of broth before distributing it to some beggars who are waiting by the convent door. The figures are painted with lifelike accuracy, and form just such a group as may be seen any day in the streets. The names of the third and fourth are forgotten. The fifth, the Death of St. Clara, is the finest of the series. She is the favoured saint who received her veil from St. Francis him-self, and whose hair was cut off by his own hands. The sixth and companion picture to the last named shows a Franciscan who fell into a state of ecstasy whilst cooking for the convent, and angels are represented doing his work ; it is called The Angel Kitchen, and bears the signature of the artist and the date 1646. The tenth, the Ecstasy of St. Giles, passed from the Aguado collection into the hands of Mr. Buchanan, of Pall Mall. The eleventh, formerly in the possession of Mr. Ford, Heavitree, Devon, exhibits a Franciscan Monk praying over the dead body of a Brother Friar. When the French army invaded the country this was the only one of the series which was not carried off by Marshal Soult-and that because it was too stiff to be rolled up.
These paintings had been the glory of the convent for a hundred and seventy years, and had attracted innumerable artists and visitors. Still, had it not been for this act of spoliation Murillo's works would have perished, for soon afterwards the convent was destroyed by fire, and nothing was left but the church and the three hundred marble columns which supported the cloisters. By these paintings the artist's reputation was made, and he was soon overwhelmed with orders from different quarters. One of his first productions following upon his sudden burst of renown was the Flight into Egypt, executed for the Convent of Mercy, in Seville, a house rich in works of art. A considerable number of pictures, which no doubt belong to the next few years, and may be reckoned amongst his masterpieces, were painted entirely from every-day life. In later years he produced none of these purely genre works, but side by side with many of his large altarpieces and Conceptions stretches a long series of Biblical and legendary compositions which have a pre-dominant genre character ; those, for instance, in the Prado Museum, The Holy Family with the bird, and the Adoration of the Shepherds. The one shows the carpenter's workshop ; Mary is spinning, while Joseph rests from his work to watch Jesus, who stands between his knees holding a bird in his hand, and is playing with a little dog. It is called del Parajito, from the name of the bird. The figures are characteristic types of the working class ; the whole is powerfully treated, and has some of the peculiarities of the school of Rembrandt. The Adoration also exhibits great power in colouring, and is strictly in accordance with nature, even to the travel-hardened soles of the shepherds' feet. There is also another of the same type in this gallery, Rebecca and Eliezer at the well, which belongs to his earlier works, and is somewhat hard in colouring, but excellently drawn.
The charm of his studies from life is seen to perfection in his celebrated paintings of Seville beggar-boys. What fulness of life and what happy humour are depicted in these productions of little sun-browned vagabonds, who in poverty and half-nakedness crouch comfortably in street corners, eating grapes and melons, perfectly indifferent to their condition, revelling in the warm sunshine, in the enjoyment of perfect health and simple love of life ! Some of the best of these characters from life are in the Pinakothek, at Munich. Two Boys tossing Honey, a third with a dog by them eating a piece of bread. Two Boys, with melons and grapes, life size. An Old Woman with a Boy ; she is exterminating unwelcome visitors from the boy's head, who meanwhile eats a piece of bread, from time to time giving a bit to a dog. A Girl counting Honey ; she sits on a stone, a boy kneels by her waiting to receive the coins—figures life size. The Prado Museum possesses some in similar style. At the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, are the Flower girl and a Boy with a Basket and Dog; the boy's face is full of life and roguish fun. At the Louvre is one called El Piojoso, a crop-haired beggar-boy, sitting on the ground, and leaning against the corner of a building, occupied " a detruire ce qui l'incommode ; " a strong ray of light comes in through an opening in. a wall, lighting up his rags, and making evident his horror of the external application of clean water. On the ground before him are some prawns, and by his side a basket with fruit, preparations for a meal " whose beginning much resembles the end ; " the usual water-jug is also there. In England, Murillo was at first chiefly known by these paintings of low-class life, of which there are several in public and private collections.
Now began a new era for our artist. He was fully occupied in decorating the churches of different religious communities, and with work for noble patrons ; he was admitted into the highest circle of society and was worshipped by the people. In 1648 his circumstances had so far improved as to enable him to marry a wealthy and noble wife, Dona Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayer, who lived at Pilas, where her property lay, a village about five leagues from Seville. There are very few records of her life, which no doubt passed quietly in the faithful discharge of her duties. There is no known portrait of her, but one face appears so frequently in Murillo's paintings that it is not improbable his wife was the model. Apparently the strict Catholic spirit which is so evident in his works also ruled in his home. His two sons became priests; but very little is known of the elder, Gabriel Esteban, who went to America. The second, Gaspar Esteban, who for a time devoted himself to art, imitating his father's style, became eventually a canon in Seville Cathedral, a post obtained for him by Don Joseph de Veitia Linage, who had married his aunt, and who was a lover of art, a man of taste and letters, and an author. Francisca, the daughter, entered the Convent of the Mother of God, at Seville, in 1676.
After his marriage Murillo's house became the resort of the most distinguished people in Seville, and in 1654, when Pacheco's death occurred, he became the acknowledged head of the Sevillian school. His style continually improved, his figures became rounder, his outlines softer, the backgrounds more hazy, and his individuality more pronounced. He became all the fashion, and any artist desirous of notice had to follow in his footsteps. Murillo had three manners of painting, the " frio " (cold), " calido " (warm), and " vaporoso " (misty). In Viardot's opinion, his manners were not consecutive according to his development, but were employed alternately as occasion required. Thus for his figures of vulgar life he employed the cold, for ecstasies of saints the warm, for the Annunciations and Conceptions the misty. His first work in the warm manner is Our Lady of the Conception, with a friar sitting writing at her feet, painted in 1652 for the brethren of the True Cross. This colossal picture was only intended to be viewed from a great distance, and consequently was not painted with minute delicacy. When the friars saw it in their hall, where it was placed preparatory to being elevated to its destined position, they called it a daub and refused to receive it. Murillo begged to be allowed, before it was removed, to show them the effect when raised to the dome. The friars, then seeing what perfect harmony there was in every part, repented of their harsh judgment, but were only allowed to retain the painting upon payment of double the original price. Three years after, by order of Don Juan Federigui, Archdeacon of Carmona, he painted two , pictures for the great sacristy in Seville Cathedral representing St. Isidor and St. Leander, worthies who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries, each in turn filling the Archiepiscopal throne. It is said that the licentiate, Juan Lopez de Talaban, sat for the portrait of St. Isidor, and that the mild and venerable countenance of St. Leander is that of Alonso de Herrera, marker of the choir. Many artists, before and since Murillo's time, have taken their friends as models for their saints and Madonnas. A painting of the Nativity of the Virgin, which hung behind the high altar in the Cathedral until carried away by Marshal Soult, was executed the same year. It is the most pleasing example of his second manner.
In 1656 the Chapter gave him another commission for a large painting ; this time the subject was to be St. Anthony of Padua. It still hangs in the chapel of the Baptistery, the gem of the Cathedral and one of his most important works. He received 10,000 reals (equal to about £100) for it, a small sum in these days, but at that time it was very considerable. The infant Saviour appears to the saint in a golden gleam from a splendid nimbus which encircles a group of graceful and sprightly cherubs on soft clouds. St. Anthony is in the act of kneeling down, and is stretching out his arms to receive the Child of God, a most sweet figure. Every stroke in this picture is full of beauty and tenderness. The expression of the saint's face, seen in profile, is one of intense yearning and devotion. On the table is a vase of white lilies, so true to nature that birds are said to have tried to perch upon and peck them. The contrast between the heavenly illumination and the perfectly natural day-light, which shines into the cell through an opening looking into the convent yard, is given with the 'consummate art peculiarly Murillo's own. It is in these supernatural scenes that he is unique and shows himself deserving of his title, " el pintor del cielo." In 1874 the figure of St. Anthony was cut out and stolen. The thief was discovered the following year in New York when attempting to dispose of his prize; it was sent back to Seville, unfortunately much damaged.
The same year (1656) Murillo's great friend and patron, the Canon Don Justino Neve y Yevenes, commissioned him to paint four large semicircular pictures for the church of Santa Maria la Blanca, which was being restored ; two were intended to illustrate the charming legend of Our Lady of the Snow, which tells how a good and pious senator and his wife, living at Rome in the time of Pope Liberius, being childless, determined to make the Virgin their heir. They had considerable wealth, and requested her graciously to intimate to them in what manner it should be invested to be most pleasing to her. Mary appeared to each of them in a dream, and accepted their offering on condition that they erected a church to her honour upon a certain spot on the Esquiline Hill, which they would find covered with snow. They betook themselves to the Pope, who had been pre-pared to receive them by an intimation from the Virgin. After obtaining Ms blessing, they went, attended by a great train of priests and people, to the Esquiline, and upon the spot indicated by the miraculous snow in summer, marked out the site of a church, which they endowed with all their possessions.
The first painting by Murillo shows the noble figure of the senator sitting asleep in his chair leaning his head upon a table ; his wife lies upon the floor, also asleep. Above is seen one of the artist's most lovely representations of the Madonna with the Holy Child in her arms, who points with his finger to the spot, seen through the window, where the church is to be erected ; a glorious light surrounds the figures. It is called The Dream, and is the first of Murillo's paintings in which his third or " vaporoso " manner is observed. In the second picture, The Fulfilment, the worthy couple are seen relating their dream to the Pope ; a friar in a white robe, who is standing by the papal chair, looks inquisitively at them through his spectacles. There is a vision of the procession wending its way to the hill. Viardot calls these paintings the " miracles of Murillo." They were taken to Paris with others of his works as prizes of war, but were returned to Spain when peace was concluded, and now hang in the San Fernando Gallery at Madrid. The other two for the church of Santa Maria la Blanca, The Immaculate Conception, in which the Virgin is being adored by three priests, and a figure of Faith, have not been recovered from the French. About this time Murillo finished the Hater Dolorosa and St. John the Evangelist, which adorned the sanctuary until the time of the French invasion. The only one remaining to the church is a Last Supper, painted in the artist's early style.