Heavenly Bodies

The recent Murillo exhibitions at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wallace Collection prompted critics to coo, “Not as kitsch as we thought.” Perhaps they never had thought. Many of the exhibited paintings usually hang in London museums, but it has taken dedicated exhibitions to make people look at them.

Yet only 200 years ago this “Apelles of Seville” commanded the highest prices. It is more than fashion from which Murillo has fallen; it is taste.

Since that peak in Murillo’s fame, we have raised up the reputations of Brueghel, Caravaggio, Velázquez and Vermeer — all special painters, but all of them, in their different ways, realists. By Aristotle’s distinction, they would have been painters of things as they are, not of things as they seem, or ought, to be. Velázquez declared he would “rather be the first painter of common things than second in higher art”. The modern view, secular and scientific, has so craved this factual art of “common things” that the “higher” art — made of refined visions, not raw observations — is almost lost to our senses. Indeed, now that we prefer our art saltier, more realistic, even Raphael, prince of painters, is not revered as he was. Few critics may dare to call Raphael “kitsch”, but I suspect some have thought it.

So no wonder that Murillo’s reputation has suffered. But look first at Joseph and his Brethren, from the Wallace Collection, because here Murillo was at his sharpest. The composition is toughly reasoned. Follow the brothers’ gazes to discover an affective psychology. Then look at The Charity of St Thomas of Villanueva, from the same collection. The saint is a serious man, carefully solemn in his duty. A ragged beggar-boy holds up his coin; his mother’s wistful reserve is wisely painted, so that she becomes the very embodiment of dignity in poverty.

In portraiture, Murillo was ordinary; his palette was all earths, and his brush could be sluggish through them. But when he painted heaven his brush danced in gold, pink and blue. Looking closely at the Dulwich Madonna of the Rosary, made in Murillo’s mature vaporoso style, I think this is how I would like to be able to paint. Every movement is joyously open-ended, yet deliberate and perfectly accurate. But if you find merit only in worldly substance, this heavenly vapour is all vapidity. Murillo often painted the Immaculate Conception. It was his triumph to bring such visceral sweetness to so abstract a subject. But if you come assuming that the subject is froth, of course you will judge Murillo’s treatment of it just a sugar-coating.

Murillo’s sweetness was sympathy. He seems a fair and gentle soul. It is touching how he envisaged the Virgin, floating among angels, as a robust Spanish peasant- girl; and so he thought to drape her shoulders — over the splendid ultramarine cloak — with a drab brown shawl.

At the same time the National Gallery’s Barocci exhibition has delighted critics. Barocci was more cerebral, less brilliant than Murillo; but with all his soft, wetted, bulging eyes, he too was a sweet painter. His scenes are animated by gusts from heaven, in which lustrous-hued draperies flutter. Perhaps taste is changing, and we are again ready to see beyond common things to “higher” art. 

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