Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1617–1682: Paintings from American Collections

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1617–1682: Paintings from American Collections

March 10, 2002 to June 16, 2002

The first comprehensive retrospective of the renowned Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) to be held in the United States was on view at the Kimbell Art Museum from March 10 through June 16, 2002. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682): Paintings from American Collections, which featured 34 paintings from the golden age of Spanish painting, drew on the considerable number of very fine examples of Murillo’s work in American museums and private collections, ranging from religious subjects to scenes of everyday life and portraits. The exhibition provided the American public with an opportunity to appreciate the quality and range of Murillo’s work, and to understand the extraordinary reputation he enjoyed in his lifetime as one of the greatest European painters of the golden age. The exhibition was organized by the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, its only other venue, where it was seen from July 14 to October 6, 2002.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Murillo was one of the most famous of the old master painters—as well known as Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, or Rubens. During the 19th century, Murillo’s formerly great repute fell into a decline, as the taste for his unabashedly emotional devotional paintings waned, and interest focused on his fellow Spaniards Vélazquez and El Greco. At no time, however, has Murillo’s mastery of the art of painting been questioned. Over the past century and a half, when American museums were amassing their collections, paintings by Murillo were always desirable acquisitions. All of the paintings in the exhibition were generously loaned by institutions and individuals in this country. Together, they provided a rich overview of his stylistic development and thematic interests, while also throwing much light on the history of collecting old master painting in the United States and the educational and philanthropic interests that prompted the establishment of the great American art museums.

With the exception of a visit to the court of Madrid in 1658, Murillo spent his entire, very productive life in his native Seville, where he created great numbers of religious paintings for the churches and monasteries, as well as for a circle of admiring private patrons. Murillo’s training as a painter was enhanced by the lively artistic environment of 17th-century Seville. His work reflects a broad knowledge of styles and subjects from both the north of Europe and from Italy, and demonstrates a truly cosmopolitan culture.

His cycles of paintings for the religious orders and confraternities of Seville are nearly all, remarkably, represented in American collections. Murillo’s first important commission, undertaken in 1645–46, was for a series of 11 paintings on the lives of Franciscan worthies for the vast monastery of San Francisco el Grande. Two of the paintings for that commission, The Blessed Giles Before Pope Gregory IX (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh) and Fray Julián of Alcalá’s Vision of the Ascension of the Soul of King Philip II of Spain (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.), were in the exhibition. These works epitomize the painter’s early style, one of a rigorous naturalism defined by careful contours and strongly sculptural chiaroscuro effects, much like that practiced by the older Sevillian painter Francisco de Zurbarán. Not long after the Franciscan commission, Murillo was invited to paint a series of works on the life of Saint John the Baptist for the convent of San Leandro. This series was represented in the show by Saint John the Baptist Pointing to Christ (c. 1655), now in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The magnificent ensemble created in Murillo’s maturity for the Hospital of Charity in Seville, completed between 1667 and 1670, was represented in the show by the moving and impressive Return of the Prodigal Son in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Murillo’s last large commission, The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (c. 1682), for the altar of the church of Santa Catalina in Cádiz, was not completed by his hand. His biographers report that Murillo fell from a scaffolding while working on this project and died, presumably from his injuries, several months later. His oil sketch (c. 1680–82) for the altarpiece, however, now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was seen in this exhibition. It is a poignant closure to an overview of Murillo’s long career, and also reflects the evolution of his style, for he moved with apparent effortlessness from the naturalism of his youth to a loose, brushy style that 19th-century critics called “vaporous.”  These works demonstrate Murillo’s ability to undertake extensive series of large narrative paintings, to work on the monumental scale required of a 17th-century artist.

However, Murillo excelled as well at paintings on a more intimate scale, devotional paintings for private residences and family chapels, even very small, refined paintings on supports other than canvas, such as the Nativity (c. 1665–70), painted on obsidian, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. One of Murillo’s iconic images of the Virgin and Child, the so-called Santiago Madonna (c. 1670), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was featured in the exhibition. He painted more than two dozen variations on the favorite Spanish subject of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, of which two versions that were in this exhibition beautifully represent the careful contours and shading of Murillo’s early style (c. 1655–60; Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas), and the loose brushwork and delicate sfumato of his mature style (c. 1680; The Cleveland Museum of Art).

Murillo was particularly admired outside of Spain, from the 17th century on, for his genre paintings, which show street scenes of beggar children and other lower-class subjects. Although he did not paint nearly as many of these secular themes as their fame would suggest, two fine examples (both c. 1655–60) were included in the exhibition: Two Women at a Window, from the National Gallery of Art, and Four Figures on a Step, one of the prized European paintings in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum. Additionally, although Murillo painted only a few portraits, two were shown in the exhibition, the portrait of Don Andrés de Andrade (c. 1665–72), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a Self-Portrait (c. 1665–60), in a private collection, which had not been on public view since it was shown in the mid-19th century at the Musée du Louvre with the huge collection of Spanish paintings amassed by King Louis Philippe.

A fully illustrated catalogue was published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Kimbell Art Museum. It includes essays on Murillo’s life and works by Jonathan Brown, Peter Cherry, William B. Jordan, Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt, the guest curator of the exhibition, and Claire Barry.

A symposium of distinguished scholars inaugurated the exhibition in Fort Worth on Saturday, March 9, 2002. The day of lectures was moderated by William B. Jordan and featured talks by Richard L. Kagan, Peter Cherry, Marcus B. Burke, Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt, and Claire Barry.

Promotional support for this exhibition was provided by American Airlines and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Caption: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Two Women at a Window (detail), c. 1655–60, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Widener Collection