The following is a guest post written exclusively for Spain Savvy by Fiona Flores Watson.
After a full year of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the baroque painter Murillo, celebrations finish on a high note. The final show of Año Murillo is a major exhibition at Seville’s Museo Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum): Murillo IV Centenario.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) was one of the most celebrated and influential painters in Spanish history. Although he enjoys less renown outside Spain than his compatriots Velazquez and Goya, both more familiar to global audiences, in traditional, fervently religious Seville, he is highly lauded. The fourth centenary celebrations have also seen another major exhibition examining the artist’s influence – Murillo: The Self-Portraits, at the Frick in New York and then London’s National Gallery.
This Murillo show here in Seville is the most important of the Golden Age artist for years – major exhibitions of his work have been held in Madrid’s Prado Museum and the Royal Academy in London, the latter in 1983, so it was time to introduce the master to a new generation of art-lovers.
Murillo was most well-known for his religious portraits commissioned for churches and monasteries in Seville of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, floating on clouds held up by plump cherubs. This exhibition has 55 of his works, divided into nine themed areas, from religious (Holy Childhood, Family of Nazareth and the Immaculate Conception), to Storyteller, Genre paintings and Portraits.
Instead of an audio guide or leaflet, you get an excellent little booklet (available in Spanish or – good – English), a handy size for pockets, with one page for each painting: a small black and white reproduction with the work’s title, date, permanent gallery or collection, and a description.
The first rooms contain his best-known topics, including The Good Shepherd (the Christ child with a sheep, which represents Agnus Dei, Lamb of God), along with several representations of the Virgin and Child, and Jesus and his father Joseph. You can see small sketches of some paintings, often held in different galleries to the full-size versions, so this is a unique opportunity to view the two versions alongside each other.
While some works feature the Virgin atop celestial clouds and angels, combining earthly beauty with spirituality, other paintings have a more down-to-earth, intimate and domestic setting, with Joseph doing his woodwork and Mary sewing, an atmosphere of contentment and closeness. Look out for The Nativity, an exquisite work painted on obsidian (black volcanic glass), at the end of room 3. The light around the figures, against the dark background, lends the appearance of glowing halos.
The Immaculate Conception, which shows Mary draped in a richly-coloured gown, held aloft by chubby cherubs, is painted on copper using glazes, giving the colours an ethereal effect. She is a radiant beauty in a celestial setting.
From the not overtly religious subjects, we see allegorical works representing indulgence and excess of The Prodigal Son Feasting (both sketch and final version), with extravagant food and clothes, and exotic details hinting at the well-travelled patron’s mercantile activities.
Several paintings are notable for their extraordinary attention to detail in each and every figure: The Marriage Feast at Cana has rich colours in its cast of characters, all with intriguing expressions, while The Adoration of the Magi has delightfully naturalistic figures showing emotional reactions as they meet baby Jesus. These are the three figures seen at traditional Three Kings processions on 5 January all over Spain.
The subjects in Room 8’s paintings broke the mould of the 17th-Spanish art world at the time, depicting street children realistically, with humour and tenderness – Four Figures on a Step, whose distinctive bespectacled woman features on the publicity for the exhibition, and The Little Fruit Seller, as much social commentary about the fate of Seville’s poor as aesthetic study. Such street scenes, with their beautifully rendered details, were popular with northern European patrons, who wanted to take home a memento from the city.
For some works, loaned from galleries across Europe and the US, including the Prado, the Louvre, and the Met – see the list below – this is the first time they’ve come back home to Seville since they were painted here in the 17th century.
At weekends, the museum offers free activities for families themed around the exhibition, using two sets of cards: one showing details from paintings with clues, and one of (largely religious) clients and collectors – a concept perhaps better suited to older children.
Paintings come from the finest galleries around the world, including Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Frick Collection, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; Prado, Madrid; Louvre, Paris; Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica, National Gallery, London
Murillo IV Centenario is on Museo Bellas Artes in Seville until 17 March 2019