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Shedding New Light on Murillo

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's "Two Women at a Window," circa 1655–60. Oil on canvas, 49 1/4 × 41 1/8 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C; Widener Collection (1942.9.46)
(Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

The only known self-portraits by the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo act as the two bookends to an exhibition “Murillo: The Self Portraits,” which opens at the National Gallery in London on February 28. The first self-portrait, painted around 1650-55, depicts Murillo as a rather young man in a black doublet, in his 30s, with an expression of bold self-assurance. The second is an image of Murillo towards the end of his artistic career, about 20 years later, in which his hair has thinned, his face reflects disappointment, and his hand reaches out across a painted stone frame, as if to touch the viewer. In between these two images, the exhibition presents about a dozen other Murillo portraits, most of them painted in an illusionistic style, employing tromp l’oeil techniques that make the viewer question exactly what they’re seeing. One stunning example is the painting “Two Women at a Window,” 1655–60, on loan from the National Gallery in Washington D.C., a life-size portrait of two women who seem to be leaning across the picture frame into the gallery.

“We’re really getting a much greater understanding of Murillo’s interest in illusionism,” said Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, the National Gallery’s associate curator of paintings from 1600-1800. “To me this group of works, the self-portraits and the other works we’ve assembled, is really interested in the idea of illusion, in tricking the viewer, in compressing the space between the viewer and the painting, and kind of testing in a way what the limits of painting are.”

One of the most celebrated painters of the Spanish Golden Age, Murillo became popular and famous in the 18th and 19th century for baroque religious imagery and urban scenes of beggars and street urchins, influenced by the work of Spanish artists Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán and by the Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. His style of painting later fell out of favor as modern art critics tend to see it as saccharine or syrupy. Nevertheless, his work remains in major museums, including the Louvre and the Prado.

“We’re really hoping that it will shed new light on the artist,” said Whitlum-Cooper. “If there are people who feel there is something chocolate-boxy about Murillo’s religious pictures or street children — personally, I don’t think there is — I hope that this brings another dimension to his artistic production. It really is a new type of Murillo to see, because they’re not the works you’ll see if you go to a major gallery.”

The Frick Collection in New York owns the younger self-portrait of Murillo, and the National Gallery owns the older one, and the two museums teamed up on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Murillo’s birth to mount the exhibition (it was on view at the Frick till February 4).

The two self-portraits have not been together since 1709, when they were listed in the inventory of possessions of Murillo’s son at his death. The younger portrait ended up in Paris, and was on exhibit at the Louvre’s collection of Spanish paintings, where it was one of the most famous paintings of Murillo in France, but later it went into a private collection for hundreds of years and became less well known. In the 19th century, the older self-portrait was sold at auction for what was considered an enormous sum of money at the time, 829 British pounds, and in the mid-20th century was sold to the National Gallery in London, where it has stayed ever since.

Little is known about why Murillo painted the self-portraits — or even the precise dates when he painted them, said Whitlum-Cooper. The first painting didn’t seem to indicate that he was an artist (although there’s a note on the bottom of the painting that says he was a great artist, but it was added later). In the older, National Gallery portrait, the tools of his painting are evident, but there’s an inscription that says it was painted to satisfy the wishes of his children.

Murillo didn’t paint many portraits; only about a dozen are thought to be extant. But, at the last moment, while the curators were preparing the show, another portrait by Murillo was discovered at Penrhyn Castle, a National Trust property in Wales, and it was folded into the exhibition at the Frick, just after it opened, and will be on view at the National Gallery. That work, which depicts a writer from the 18th century, was thought to be a copy of a Murillo until the art scholar Benito Navarrete Prieto recently made a convincing case that it was an original.“It’s certainly exciting to think that there are still discoveries to be made,” said Whitlum-Cooper.

— This article appears in the February 2018 edition of Art+Auction.