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Art review: the Murillo exhibition at the National Gallery

13 April 2018

Nicholas Cranfield gives his thoughts on the Master from Seville

© The Frick Collection, New York

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Self-Portrait, c.1650-55. On loan from the Frick Collection, New York, Gift of Dr and Mrs Henry Clay Frick II, 2014

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Self-Portrait, c.1650-55. On loan from the Frick Collection, New York, Gift of Dr and Mrs Henry Clay Frick II, 2014

THE youngest of 14 children, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was baptised on New Year’s Day 1618 in St Mary Magdalene’s, Seville. A centenary exhibition is being held in Seville Cathedral (until 8 December), in addition to those that have just closed at the Espacio Santa Clara, a former nunnery, where 62 paintings, including nine originals, demonstrated his significant influence, and at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, where all the elements of the high altarpiece commissioned by the Capuchins and the altarpieces for the side chapels (1665-66) were brought together.

Winter visitors to New York (The Frick), and now London have an opportunity to celebrate with a perfectly made exhibition built around his only two known self-portraits. They were still in the possession of Murillo’s son at his death in 1709, and hang side by side for the first time in more than three centuries. They are shown in company with portraits of Murillo’s friends and patrons.

Henry Clay Frick obtained his version, which dates to the early 1650s and had once been in the collection of King Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, in October 1904 for $22,000. It was the first Spanish work that the American industrialist bought, but has only recently been shown with the rest of his collection on Fifth Avenue.

This depiction of the successful young artist came to be widely known from any number of copies and prints made when it was shown in Paris in the Galerie Espagnole. Both Auguste Blanchard and Henry Adlard engraved it in the 1840s, when collecting Iberian art became widely popular.

The National Gallery purchased the later self-portrait, which is dated 1670, in 1953 from the Spencer estate at Althorp. It had left Spain by 1729. Frederick, Prince of Wales, owned it from at least 1740.

In both, Murillo peers out of an illusionistic carved stone frame. The monumental masonry was an afterthought, as if to suggest that Murillo was part of Seville’s heritage, while, as an older man, he comfortably rests his right hand on the oval frame itself. In this second image, his eyes search for us with an almost charitable interest, and it is perhaps no surprise that this was painted for his surviving children. It is both honest and unaffected, inviting us to share their intimacy.

Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Two Women at a Window, 1655-60, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1942.9.46

The exhibition also includes the 1672 half-length portrait of the Flemish silk merchant Nicolàs Omazur (The Prado), dressed after the Spanish fashion. It is a vanitas painting inscribed with a suitably admonitory scriptural verse, “He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down” (Job 14.2).

In a plague-ridden port, the sentiment was a commonplace, but here the 40-year-old merchant is shown cradling a skull with as little regard as he can muster: he had, after all, just married, for the first time. At his death, at the end of the century, Omazur owned more than 200 paintings, 31 of them by his friend Murillo. The Scottish owner of the pendant, depicting Omazur’s wife, Isabel Malcampo, holding a full blown rose, has regrettably decided not to lend it.

On the opposite wall, there are three portraits of friends of the artist which have never been exhibited in public before. Juan Arias de Saavedra (formerly owned by the Dukes of Medinaceli, now the property of the Duchess of Cardona) sat to his friend in 1650; it is reckoned the earliest of the 16 portraits by the artist which are known to us.

The nobleman Saavedra, later Marquis of Moscoso, was a senior minister of the Holy Inquisition. Even at the age of 29, his mien is consistent with his reputation for severity in punishing criminals. By comparison, the unidentified teenage aristocrat has all the innocence of his years, and the certain assurance of reckless youth. This smaller-format portrait resurfaced on the Paris art market in 2009, and has also been newly restored for the exhibition.

Between them is another fine portrait that is on long-term loan to Penrhyn Castle (NT). Long thought to be a copy, it was identified as an autograph work last year (after the catalogue went to press, fig. 26) and was hailed at once by Sotheby’s as a masterpiece (November 2017), although there are no current plans to sell it.

The sitter, the later historian Count Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga (1633/36-80), is portrayed as a knight of Seville in his early twenties. Since he married his first cousin in 1657, it is tempting to think that this, too, may be a marriage portrait. At his death, he owned half a dozen paintings by Murillo.

On the back of the success of his fashionable novel The Young Duke, Benjamin Disraeli was able to travel to the Ottoman East with a companion, William Meredith, sailing from Gibraltar for Malta after spending time in Spain.

He was nothing if not enthusiastic when he wrote back to his brother: “Run my dear fellow to Seville and for the first time in your life know what a great artist is — Murillo, Murillo, Murillo!” If you have been unable to get to Seville to the exhibitions there, the National Gallery will amply make the same point.


“Murillo: The Self Portraits” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 21 May. Phone 020 7747 2885.


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