Celebrating Murillo's 400th Anniversary

Bartolomé Esteban Pérez was the birth name of who came to be one of the greatest figures of the Baroque and precursor of Rococo. He was born in Sevilla (Spain) someday in the late December 1617, in a well-off family as the youngest of 14 siblings. His father, Gaspar Esteban, was a barber-surgeon (multidisciplinary profession held by doctors, surgeons and healers of dubious reputation, whose job would entail such diverse tasks as cutting hair, removing teeth, treating broken bones, assisting difficult labours or applying leeches as treatment for various diseases) and his mother, María Pérez Murillo (whose surname Bartolomé would use as his main one), belonged to a family of silversmiths and painters.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo "Self-Portrait". Oil on canvas 122 x 107 cm. London National Gallery.

At the age of ten Murillo became an orphan and moved in with his sister Ana and her family, with whom he would live until his marriage in 1645. His artistic beginnings date from around 1633 when he started attending painter Juan del Castillo’s workshop. Some of his first works were background murals for Corrales de Comedias in Sevilla (literally, “theatrical courtyards”), that were very popular entertainment venues at the time. In 1645 Murillo received his first important commission: a series of eleven canvases for the small cloisters of the monastery of San Francisco el Grande. La cocina de los ángeles was one the biggest pieces composing the series, and one of the most celebrated ones due to the realism with which Murillo depicted everyday objects. These series belong to his first artistic period, strongly influenced by another master of the painting also from Sevilla, Francisco de Zurbarán, whose artistic style was characterised by strong light contrasts, precise drawings and a smooth brush strokes. This work was Murillo’s artistic career launch pad, after which he began receiving commissions from the main religious institutions and the most notable families in the city.

La Cocina de los Ángeles. Oil on canvas 180 x 450 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Murillo was a true master of capturing human expressions with his brush, hence why large part of his fame is due to his iconographic works of beautiful “inmaculadas” (virgins), sweet “niños Jesús” (child Jesus) and delicate “maternidades” (maternity scenes), that he portrayed with exquisite sensitivity and elegance.

La Virgen de la Servilleta. Oil on canvas 72 cm x 67 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Sevilla.

In addition to his deep faith, Murillo’s body of work was also strongly influenced by his personal experiences of an early orphanhood, the loss of some of his children and the dark times Sevilla was immersed in from 1649 to 1655 due to the scourge of the plague. These experiences grew in him a very special sensitivity towards defenceless and vulnerable people, which he would reflect on another crucial part of his work: his genre or costumbrist paintings.

Niños Comiendo Uvas y Melón. Oil on canvas 104 cm x 146 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

This style of painting provided him also with international fame thanks to his friendship with foreign traders who while in Sevilla doing business would commission him works to export about these and other profane subjects to the bourgeoisie liking, treating everyday scenes this time without bitterness but with a lighter even humorous tone instead. These costumbrist works turned Murillo into precursor of Rococo, and were also the reason why nowadays a large part of his work is spread throughout private collections and museums all around the world.

In 1660 along with his colleague Herrera el Mozo, he founded in Sevilla a drawing academy intended to help artists to improve their technique of the anatomical drawing of the nude, working with live models during classes that would take place at night with the only light of a fireplace and candles. This academy was located in the building currently known as Archivo de Indias, and it was the first antecedent of the Facultad de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (Faculty of Fine Arts of Sevilla). Murillo stayed in his city until he died in 1682, a few days after falling from a scaffolder when working on a commission for a convent in Cadiz.

Santa Justa y Rufina. Oil on Canvas 2000 cm x 176 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Sevilla.

The city of Sevilla is deeply proud of being Murillo’s homeland, and has been celebrating his 400th anniversary since the beginning of 2018 with an extensive varied cultural program that will see its closing with the exhibition Murillo. IV Centenario, held from November 29th 2018 to March 17th 2019 in the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla (Museum of Fine Arts of Sevilla). This would be the most important exhibition of Murillo’s paintings ever organised, gathering more than 70 pieces amongst which 55 have been specially brought from various collections from all around the world. A one of a kind exhibition within the walls of one of the most majestic buildings in Sevilla, and surrounded by the magic of a city that stole not only Murillo’s heart, but the one of each of those who visit it.

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