The man who set himself in stone

Murillo has gone out of fashion but an exhibition of his portraits may help to restore his reputation

Art
“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.”

The National’s self-portrait, painted some 20 years later, shows an older and sadder man when the kissing had to stop. His wife was dead, as were five of his children, but the unblinking stare remains the same. This time the rough block has been replaced by an elegant stone frame with his paints and brushes admitting his pride at being the pre-eminent painter in Seville. The portrait, bearing the inscription “Bartolomé Murillo portraying himself to fulfil the wishes and prayers of his children”, hints at a certain reluctance. He takes the trompe l’oeil of the earlier picture a stage further, his hand emerging to rest on the stone frame.

Murillo died, according to his first biographer, “of pure decorousness”. While painting high up in a Capuchin convent in Cadiz he stumbled on the scaffolding “and because his intestines were ruptured, they came out; and so as not to manifest his weakness or allow himself to be examined he died of this unexpected accident in the year 1685”.

In the two self-portraits, both owned by his youngest son Gaspar, he provided an answer to the conundrum he had posed to himself. In them he literally and metaphorically set himself in stone, but that hand reaching out to his children shows his determination, alive or dead, always to be part of their world.

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is in the middle of a run of fine exhibitions, from classicism in British art to John Piper as a designer and a comprehensive survey of David Bomberg. The latest show in this rich vein of form is POP! Art in a Changing Britain (until May 7), which draws on the gallery’s commodious holdings of 1950s and 1960s art and is the largest exhibition it has yet mounted.

Pop Art had no real starting and finishing dates in Britain but reflected a mixture of lingering post-war anxiety, optimism for change, and a degree of envy towards America’s consumer wealth. It coincided too with the emergence of a rich cohort of artists — David Hockney, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield and Richard Hamilton among them. It was Hamilton in 1957 who defined British Pop as “Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short-term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; Big Business.”

The Pallant exhibition uses a selection from some 15 different artists to showthe great variety of ways such themes were interpreted and how treating contemporary culture in new ways, from comic strips to collage, shifted the definition of high and low art. It is a lively overview that proves Pop to have been less a style than an attitude.