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“His mouth has kissed a lot, I believe”: Murillo’s first known self-portrait, c.1650-5 (©The Frick Collection, New York)

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) offers a case study in changing taste. From the early 20th century, the painter, famous for his religious pictures and images of street urchins, began to fall from favour. His pictures have been deemed cloyingly sweet or uncomfortably patronising and lacking the astringency of, say, Velázquez or Francisco de Zurbarán, and his sensibility has been re-read as sentimentality. For 250 years, however, Murillo was one of the most lauded painters of all. In 1830, Disraeli, for example, advised his brother to “run my dear fellow to Seville and for the first time in your life know what a great artist is — Murillo, Murillo, Murillo!” A decade later, when Paul Delaroche painted a mural for the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris showing history’s greatest artists, he included only two Spaniards — Velázquez and Murillo.

Murillo was baptised on New Year’s Day 1618 and to mark this 400th anniversary the National Gallery is holding a small exhibition (until May 21) concentrating on a largely-ignored aspect of Murillo’s output, his portraiture, and in particular his two known self-portraits, one in the Frick Collection in New York, c.1650-1655, the other, c.1670, belonging to the National itself.

The painter was born in Seville which was then, thanks to trade with the New World, the most prosperous city in Spain, and he worked there all his life. A proposed journey to forge a career in South America never took place and he made only one trip to Madrid, in 1658, when he met both Velázquez and Zurbarán (both of whom had Sevillian links); frustratingly, there is no record of what the three greatest artists of the Spanish Golden Age spoke about.

On his return, Murillo took back with him the example of Titian, Van Dyck and other artists he had seen in the royal collection. Murillo himself never painted for Philip IV but rather for local religious confraternities and aristocrats — although it remains unclear who bought his urchin pictures, so influential on later artists such as Gainsborough whose Two Shepherd Boys with Dogs Fighting of 1783 is an homage.

Portraits played a small part in Murillo’s career. Only 16 have been identified, six of which accompany the two self-portraits in the exhibition. In the Frick self-portrait Murillo shows himself in his thirties, his image inset into a block of chipped stone itself resting on another slab. In a black tunic with slashed sleeves, he bears no items that hint at his profession but rather presents himself as a confident gentleman. The picture, though, plays with perception: it is not a straight portrait but a painting of a still life in which the self-portrait is simply the main element. The block of stone perhaps shows the interest of his humanist circle in the rediscovery of Seville’s Roman past: the city, built on top of the Roman city Hispalis, which was said to have been founded by Hercules, was known as the “new Rome”. The painting left the German historian Jacob Burckhardt in raptures. It showed, he wrote in 1843, “what it was that elevated Murillo above his own time” before he went on to extol the painter’s features and conclude, “Happy the woman who has been loved by this man! His mouth has kissed a lot, I believe.”
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