Murillo's Last Painting
( Originally Published 1882 )
Last painting.—Accident.—Will.—Death.—Portraits of Murillo.— Decline of Spanish art.
SEVILLE ever remained the theatre of Murillo's work ; he only once left his dear native town after his journey to Madrid in his young days. At the beginning of 1680 he went to Cadiz to paint one large and four small pictures, which he had promised, to fill up the retablo of the high altar in the church of the Capuchin friars. The large one represented the Marriage of St. Catherine, a large portion of which, namely, the graceful centre group of the Virgin and Infant Saviour and the bride, was finished when the artist was compelled to relinquish his work, owing to sudden illness caused by a dangerous fall from the scaffold which he was mounting to enable him to reach the upper part of the painting. Tradition says that this accident occurred in the chapel at Cadiz, but whether there or in his own studio, it is certain that the end of his life was passed in Seville. When too weak any longer to be able to use his brush, he would spend hours in prayer in his parish church of Santa Cruz, close by which he lived. His favourite position was in front of Campana's celebrated painting of the Descent from the Cross, executed a century before, and which Murillo greatly admired. It was painted in a style harsh and bold, most unlike his own. Pacheco said that he did not care to be left alone with it in its dimly lighted chapel, but Murillo would study it for hours. One evening, when lingering longer than usual, the sacristan told him that the Angelus had sounded, and asked for what he was waiting ? He replied, " I am waiting until those men have brought the body of our Blessed Lord down the ladder," —the highest praise that could be given to a painting.
The fatal picture was afterwards finished by Meneses Osorio, a pupil of Murillo, who left the principal group exactly as it came from the master's hand. It still hangs over the high altar in the Capuchin convent, now a hospital, at Cadiz.
When Murillo felt that his end was approaching he sent for his notary, Antonio Guerrero, to make his will ; but death came so quickly that he was unable to sign it. He died April 3rd, 1682, in the arms of his friend Neve and his pupil Villavicencio. His second son, then a boy, was the only member of his family present; his wife was already dead.
The original copy of his will is in the archives of the town of Seville, and is a proof of the clearness of his mind until his last breath ; it tells us that, although not rich, he possessed several houses, besides the property he acquired by marriage, a small sum of money, a number of pictures, finished and unfinished, some plate and furniture. The will begins with an acknowledgment of faith in the Roman Catholic Church, and after committing his soul to God, he orders that his body be buried in the church of Santa Cruz. He desired that four hundred masses be said for his soul, one hundred in the Convent of our Lady of Mercy, in Seville, and the remainder where his executors, Neve and Villavicencio, chose. Some articles of plate which he had inherited from his cousin Maria de Morino he directed should be sold to pay for masses for her soul. He left a sum of 50 reals, "to be delivered as soon as I die," to his servant Anna Maria de Salcedo, who had attended to the requirements of his household since his wife's death. He then mentions what is owing to himself, and what he owes to others, with orders to collect and pay the said debts. He states how much he had received upon the Cadiz picture, and gives details about other paintings. His wife's property is mentioned, and he declares that he himself at the time of their marriage possessed neither landed property nor riches, also that his daughter Francisca had received her portion when she took the veil. He appointed his sons residuary legatees. The notary appended the following statement to the document:—"Towards 5 o'clock on the afternoon of 3rd. April, 1682, I was sent for to make the will of Bartolome Murillo, painter and burgher of this town of Seville, and when I had written down as far as the names of his heirs, and was inquiring the name of his son Don Gaspar Estevan Murillo, and as he was in the act of saying his name and that of his elder son, I observed that he was dying, and when I asked him the formal question whether he had made any other will he did not reply, and soon after died." His funeral was celebrated with great pomp, and he was laid to rest by his own desire at the foot of his favourite picture, his grave being covered with a stone slab, on which were carved his name, a skeleton, and the two words, "Vive moriturus."
During the French occupation the church of Santa Cruz was demolished, as was also that which covered the remains of Velazquez, in Madrid. The Plaza Santa Cruz now occupies the site of the church. A tablet has been inserted in an adjacent wall, by the Academy of Arts, in memory of its founder, and to record the fact of his burial near the spot. Since then a bronze statue of Murillo has been erected by the city of Seville, near the Provincial Museum, which contains so many of his works. Over the iron gate leading from the vestibule to the court of the house which Murillo occupied during the latter part of his life, a tablet was also placed by a tenant in the present century, a dean of Seville ; upon it are these words, "En esta casa murio, B. E. Murillo."
The portrait of Murillo has been rendered tolerably familiar by engravings. The most popular is that painted by himself in his youth, and left by his will to his sons, of which we give a copy as frontispiece. It was formerly in the collection of Don Bernardo Iriarte at Madrid ; and then, passing through the galleries of Don Francisco de la Barrera Enguidanos and Mr. Julian Williams, came into the possession of King Louis Philippe, at whose sale in 1853 it was purchased by Mr. Nieuwenhuijs, who subsequently sold it to the late Baron Selliere : it remains in possession of his family. According to the then prevailing fashion, it appears as if painted on a stone slab which rests upon another; a later hand has inscribed upon the edge of the latter his name, with the date of his birth and death. "Vera effigies Bartholomaei Stephani a Murillo Maximi Pictoris Hispali nati anno 1618 obiit anno 1682 tertia die mensis Aprijis." It has been engraved by Blanchard, by Albuerne in 1790, by Sichling, and by H. Adlard in Stirling's " Annals." There is also an engraving by Alegre and Carmona which resembles this portrait in features; in it the artist is represented three-quarter length, with his left hand resting on a drawing and with a crayon-holder in his right.
Then, of a later period there is a portrait, showing him with a careworn expression and wearing a white collar edged with lace, painted at the request of his children, in the possession of Earl Spencer at Althorp, inscribed—" Bartus Murillo seipsum depingens pro filiorum votis acprecibus explendis." This painting was formerly in the possession of Lord Ashburnham, at whose sale in 1850 it was purchased by Lord Spencer for 790 guineas, and is believed to be the original from which the copy by Miguel de Tobar in the Madrid Gallery was taken. It is, in all probability, the portrait which was engraved by Richard Collin, of Brussels, in 1682, the year of Murillo's death. Collin's print is almost identical with the Althorp picture, except that the hand disappears behind the oval frame instead of resting on it as in the painting, and the inscription is on a slab instead of a scroll. This painting, which has recently been etched by C. O. Murray in the " Port-folio" (1877), was exhibited at the British Institution in 1855, at Manchester in 1857, at Leeds in 1868, and at the South Kensington Museum in 1876-79.
An engraving by Calamatta of Murillo's portrait, taken from a painting then in the Aguado Collection, which was sold in 1843, exactly resembles the Althorp picture, except that it is represented in a plain oval.
Two other engravings of portraits of Murillo exist : one by Edward Scriven, in 1834, shows the artist with a palette and brushes, and the other, by Benedetto Eredi, is in a plain oblong; but neither resembles at all closely either of the above authentic portraits.
Proofs of all the above-mentioned engravings may be seen in the British Museum.
The genuineness of the so-called portrait of himself by Murillo in the Buda-Pesth Gallery, showing a much older man, has been doubted; it has been etched by P. Rajon.
Mr. William Marshall, in 1857, exhibited at Manchester a so-called portrait of Murillo, which he purchased at the Standish Sale in 1853.
There is no record of any stirring event to interrupt the even course of a life spent in the practice of his art, and it seems almost a truism to say that Murillo's character must be estimated by his works. It is manifest that he was a true Catholic, free from all bigotry, noble-minded, religious and truthful ; quick at discerning the good which lies somewhere concealed in the character of every man, and prompt in bringing it to the surface; happy, too, in exhibiting the most pleasing side of human nature, however unpromising it might appear. His quiet influence over others was peculiarly manifested on the foundation of the Academy, and the affection of his pupils is an evidence of his power of attaching others to him. His gentleness and benevolence endeared him to all with whom he came in contact, and his loss was keenly felt not only by his equals but by the poor, who had learned to regard him as their especial friend.
The absence of all signature to his paintings made the sale of spurious copies simple and profitable ; and many have been sold, especially those which were types of lower-class life, which were probably executed by his pupils.
There is recorded a clever deception by some Flemish friars who had a Murillo altar-piece, which they professed to be willing to sell, and the would-be purchaser was requested to attach his seal and signature to the back. But behind the original was a copy framed in with it, which in due course found its way to the deceived collector bearing the seal which he had put upon it.
Murillo was an artist of remarkable fertility, yet his circumstances were never sufficiently prosperous to place him above the necessity of accepting all commissions offered to him. From one cause or another many of his productions are not highly finished, and are often repetitions of the same subject, so that he has been called his own plagiarist.
After Murillo, his old rival Valdes Leal was the acknowledged art chief, a position after which he had been striving for years, but at his death in 1691 there was no one to maintain the honour of the school. During the twelve years' war of the succession, national art was again neglected, having lost its principal supporters with the extinction of the House of Austria, till under the Bourbons it became again little more than a feeble imitation of that which was imported from foreign countries. Numbers of Murillo's paintings were taken to France by the noblemen in the suite of Philip V., and this sale of his works was carried to such an excess that in 1779 Charles M. issued a decree for-bidding their exportation under pain of fine and the confiscation of the pictures, a law which was of no avail at the beginning of the following century. Many are dispersed among the houses of the nobility in England; and though the best of his works still find a home in Seville, and are the glory of his native city, there is scarcely a gallery in Europe which does not contain some record of his fame.