Bartolome Esteban Murillo was a Spanish painter from the Baroque period who became one of the leading Spanish painters at the time. He is best known for his religious artworks; however, Murillo also produced several paintings depicting contemporary Sevillan scenes, creating an extensive recording of the period's day-to-day life. The painter's work would shape the city as much as he was influenced by it. Murillo was an exceptional Baroque painter who revitalized how religious scenes were painted, bringing realism into his figures and a balance between Flemish and Italian influences. His artworks can be seen in the Museo de Bellas Artes and Seville's Cathedral and churches.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born in December 1617. He was the youngest in a family of 14, born in the city of Seville in the Spanish region of Andalusia. Bartolomé worked and lived his entire life in Seville. During the Baroque painter's early life, Seville was one of Europe's most important cities, rivaling Amsterdam, Venice, and Madrid. Throughout his life, the city was strongly religious, with churches increasing over time.
Esteban Murillo's family came from a middle-class background. His father worked as a barber, which at the time also shared the function of a surgeon. His parents were very old, and when he was only ten, they passed away. Upon their death, he came under the protection of his sister's husband. Bartolomé rarely used his father's surname. Instead, he would use the surname of his maternal grandmother, Elvira Murillo. The Spanish painter would soon manifest his interest in painting and intend to go to the colonies. At 15, he produced a series of works aimed towards the colonial enterprises, but apparently, this attempt wouldn't farewell. Esteban Murillo remained in Spain.
Murillo's earliest art education was under the painter Juan del Castillo, who was also related to his mother. His earliest production was heavily inspired by artists such as Jusepe de Ribera, Alonso Cano, and Francisco de Zurbarán. It is speculated that Murillo studied under Castillo from 1630 to 1636.
One of his earliest commissions was a collection of canvases for La Regina Angelorum, a monastery. The influence of Castillo's work is noted in these paintings, with the presence of clear contours and warm colors. There aren't many surviving works from this period, mainly because Murillo worked with events, such as religious festivals, and images made for these festivities were ephemeral.
Since Seville was a thriving commercial city at the time, it was possible for Murillo to experience artistic influences from many other regions. Hence he became in contact with Flemish art, especially Molanus' work and his Treatise on Sacred Images. As Murillo developed his painting technique, his artwork became more polished and under the taste of the bourgeois, especially in the religious Roman Catholic artworks. It can be affirmed that Murillo was influenced by Flemish painting, as it can be perceived in his attention to detail, refinement in color, and complex compositions.
At the age of 26, Murillo moved to Madrid, where he became familiar with Velázquez's artwork and was undoubtedly influenced by it. He returned to Seville to marry Beatriz Cabrera y Villalobos in 1645, and the couple had eleven children together. In the same year, Murillo produced thirteen paintings for the convent of St. Francisco el Grande, in Seville. These canvases depicting the Franciscan saints' miracles and charitable works carry a hint of Zurbarán's Tenebrism but also display a soft luminous aesthetic, very typical of Murillo's mature work. The series was well-received and guaranteed a group of sellers and commissions for the artist. This work would entail Murillo becoming known for certain religious motifs, such as The Immaculate Conception (1652) and the Virgin and Child with a Rosary (1650).
Also executed circa 1645, The Young Beggar was Murillo's first of several paintings depicting children. This would become a rather uncommon trait of the Spanish painter's oeuvre during this period. When dealing with this subject, the artist tended to portray minimalist scenery, probably to bring emphasis to the human figure. This work was done in a realist manner that wasn't fashionable for Spanish patrons and more in terms of the Flemish tradition. Since Seville was a trading destination, Murillo could sell this kind of works to international buyers.
By 1650, while still maintaining its intellectual prestige, Seville lost its commercial affluence. To make matters worse, a plague struck the city, killing nearly half of the population, resulting in famine and civil unrest. It was during this time that the number of monasteries and churches increased, with the Franciscan order being a significant influence on acts of charity.
According to the historian Giulio Carlo Argan, the church used the Baroque art to approach the masses to Christian faith and maintain power during the Counter-Reformation. The public aspect of art gained a political turn and became the main reason Murillo, a very religious individual, received many commissions from the church.
A notable difference from another known Spanish painter, Velázquez, is that Murillo wasn't worried about entering into the circle of monarchs. Francisco de Zurbarán, one of the painter's early influences, also worked with the royal family and even someone as El Greco, who had an authentic and personal work and had hoped to maintain ties with the Monarch.
The number of commissions that Murillo received from church institutions alone, along with the local aristocracy, was enough for his economic prosperity. Although he went to Madrid, it is suspected that it was to have access to the royal collection and see the works of painters like Van Dyck, Rubens, and other masters. It was then that Murillo absorbed the Baroque tradition of different countries and came into his style, having a shift in his color palette and working with broad brushstrokes.
In 1660, Murillo was one of the founders of the Academia de Bellas Artes, or the Academy of Fine Arts of Seville, where he shared its direction with Francisco Herrera the Younger, the architect. The institution was the first official academy in Spain. As it is known, since the Baroque period until the end of Academicism, the institutions played a significant role in not only educating artists but in organizing their exhibitions and financing their trips to other countries.
Even during the late phase of his career, the artist continued to innovate his style. He began to portray Christ, the Virgin, John the Baptist, and other saints as Sevillan adolescents and children, introducing a sense of sweetness into religious subjects. As it was stated previously about the painters work with street children, this wasn't a common trait on the production at the time.
Art historians debate that this kind of new depiction was helping religious painting become more accessible imagery since those were not faces of idealized characters but city people from everyday life. Caravaggio did something similar while working with religious subjects, using, for example, a prostitute as the model for The Death of The Virgin (1601-06), which stirred a lot of controversy at the time.
During the the the late 1660s and 70s, Murillo executed several significant commissions for prestigious religious institutions, such as the Convento de Los Padres Capuchinos, illustration the allegory of the Prodigal Son; several artworks for the church of San Agustin dedicated to Saint Thomas de Villanueva. Also, by 1667, Murillo began an important series for the Hospital de Caridad that consisted of two paintings of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Saint John of God and six of the seven acts of mercy.
By 1682, Murillo began his last commission, a group of paintings for the main altar of the Capuchins church in Cadiz. The artwork was to be executed directly on-site using a scaffolding. First, Murillo sketched prepared canvases, and they were installed on the altars. When painting the central canvas, the artist fell from at least twenty feet onto the marble floors, rupturing his abdominal wall.
Although the artist was able to return to Seville, he would soon perish due to hernia and other associated complications. The altar was finished by one of his pupils, Francisco Meneses Osorio. Osorio was a very skilled painter but with no creative voice of his own, completing artworks that were sometimes indistinguishable from the ones made by Murillo.
Bartolome Esteban Murillo died on April 3, 1862. His youngest son, Gaspar, was with him at his time of death. His wife, María, had passed away in 1665. Tragically, five of their children died during his lifetime. Two of his sons eventually left Seville. His body was entombed in the Santa Cruz Church. The church of Santa María Magdalena, built-in 1692, has a plaque with his baptism date and the title "Painter of Heaven".
Bartolome Esteban Murillo is one of the most famous Spanish painters of all time. During his career, he became the master of many other prominent painters like Francisco Meneses Osorio, Pedro Nuñez Villavicencio, and Juan Simón Gutierrez. Through his studio and his many commissions, Murillo became the staple of Baroque paintings and became studied as an aspiring reference for years to come.
Murillo's art gave a more accessible and real face to its religious characters. Influenced by the Franciscans, he portrayed Seville's teens and children with a remarkable ability to empathize. He also transcended the Tenebrism and idealism of Zurbarán by learning and adopting the sophisticated visuality of the Flemish tradition.