Spanish Painting – Murillo

THE most popular artist of the Spanish School is unquestionably Murillo. He was the idol of his contemporaries in Andalusia; most admired by connoisseurs and public in the eighteenth century, and, although during the nineteenth century artists and connoisseurs have extolled Velasquez and more recently Goya and El Greco at his expense, to the popular taste Murillo is still in the ascendant.

There must be a good reason both for the depreciation of Murillo on the part of artists and for the continuing appreciation of the public; therefore one must try to discover them impartially. For, while the popular estimation of any particular artist at a given period is apt to be wrong—perhaps more often wrong than right—it scarcely can hold its own through the chances and changes of over two hundred years without having in it some considerable element of right. What then is the abiding something in Murillo’s art which makes this perennial appeal? For my own part, I believe that, if you can sum it up in a word, it is the spirit of Youth.

One imagines Murillo (not without plenty of justification for the idea) as a man who, in a psychological sense, never grew old; retaining to the end the naivete and simple faith of a child. He continues, therefore, to appeal to adults who have kept something of their youth with them or to those whose study of art has not passed beyond the stage of instinct. For, just as it is possible for a man to have matured understanding and appreciation of a work of art, and yet be like a child amid the intricacies of an electric power-house, wondering, admiring, but without capacity to estimate the value of this plant as compared with another; so a man may be full of knowledge, even to the length of sophistication, and still exhibit the naivete and unreasoning appreciation of a child in the presence of a work of art. Necessity or chance determined that he should cultivate his higher mental powers in another direction ; art is to him only an occasional distraction; his feeling toward it is regulated solely by his instinct. As he would say himself, “I know what I like.”

To tell such a man that he is wrong would be not only cruel but false. From his own standpoint he is not wrong; he is very much in the right, if the end of art is the heightening of a man’s nature through contemplation of the beautiful. This thing is beautiful to him, and through the beauty he sees in it he finds his nature refreshed, purified and enlarged. What more could you-advise for him at that particular stage of his artistic development? It is true to the standpoint of his own instinct. Would you have him substitute your standpoint for his? Are you sure that your own leads to any better results for you than his for him? Any-how, unless he changes his standpoint through convictions that have grown into his mental consciousness and been endorsed by his experience, his last state may be worse than the first. He was honest and sincere before ; now he may be only a glib repeater of borrowed preferences.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo was born in Seville in 1618, probably on the first day of January. The official catalogue of the Prado begins its reference to the artist’s career with the following significant words:

“When this great artist came into the world, his parents, Gaspar Esteban Murillo and Maria Perez, were living in a humble house in the Calle de las Tiendas. It was but three months since the Virgin Mary, in the mystery of her Immaculate Conception, had been proclaimed the patroness of the Dominions of Philip IV. Under such happy auspices was born the Painter of the Conceptions.”

This dogma of the Conception, which for centuries had occupied the minds of theologians and scholars and captivated the imagination of the faithful, was nowhere held in greater honor than in Spain, and the center of the cult was Seville. Meanwhile, the authority of the Church, as expressed in Councils and Bulls, had maintained a neutral attitude toward the question. When, however, at the end of 1617, Paul V, yielding to the repeated urging of the Crown and Church of Spain, issued a Bull which forbade teaching or preaching in opposition of the dogma, the joy of the Spanish people was profound. Seville herself celebrated the glad tidings in a frenzy of religious rejoicing. A magnificent ceremony was performed in the Cathedral and amid the strains of choir and organ, salvoes of artillery and a paean of the bells of the cathedral and churches, Archbishop de Castro swore to maintain and defend this peculiar tenet of his see. It was followed by a splendid entertainment in the bull-ring, where in the presence of enormous throngs the nobles appeared, accompanied by magnificent retinues, and one in particular, Don Melchior de Alcazar, attended by his dwarf and four gigantic negroes, performed prodigies of valor and dexterity. It was recognised that a new era had commenced; that the old dark days of inquisitorial rigor were passed and love and gentleness were to reign hence-forth. It was into this atmosphere of sweet religious ecstasy that Murillo was born, destined to become the artist who best succeeded in expressing it.

Murillo’s only teacher was his uncle, Juan de Castillo, .who gave his pupil a thorough grounding in drawing, though his own style could not do much to help his pupil’s advance in painting. After a time Juan moved to Cadiz and his nephew, without father or mother, was left to face life alone. He gained a living by painting “bodegones,” or still-life subjects, and pictures of saints, which he sold in the feria or weekly market. His ambition was to study in Rome and, as a first step, to visit Madrid. Having saved a little money, he made his way on foot to the capital and presented himself to his fellow townsman, Velasquez. The latter received him kindly and obtained permission for the young man to paint in the royal galleries. Here Murillo studied and copied the works of Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Ribera and Velasquez himself, to such purpose that the last-named advised him to go to Rome. But Murillo, who had now been three years away from Seville, determined to return thither. The same independent spirit which had enabled him to shift for himself and to leave home and study in wider fields, now assured him that he had gained what he needed without further travel. From the various influences which he had experienced, he discovered a style for himself. He returned to Seville with-out friends or influence, but opportunity presented itself. The monks of the convent of S. Francis wished their cloister decorated. Murillo applied to them for the commission. They would have preferred a well known artist of the city, but, having little money to offer, engaged the young, unknown painter. Murillo spent three years on this work, and, when it was completed, found himself the most famous painter in Seville. He had taken something from the several styles of the artists he had studied and imprinted upon it his own individuality. This expressed itself particularly in an ability to give reality to his picturing of the story involved in the legends of S. Francis. He had proved himself to be a great illustrator.

This term today perhaps involves a certain depreciatory significance. Men are often illustrators because they cannot find a market for their easel-pictures; or, having obtained a reputation as illustrators, are ambitious to be painters. The fact is, that illustration to-day is confined to books and magazines, and from the publisher’s point of view is designed rather to attract attention to the text than to illuminate it. But in Murillo’s day, as in Raphael’s, illustration was a noble and honored art, the readiest and most efficient way of bringing the sacred truth home to the minds of the unlettered masses, and permitted so grand a scope, that it was also a decoration to monumental buildings. Thus the value of an illustration at that date, while it incidentally might be decorative, depended primarily on the appeal which it made to the hearts and understandings of the people. Murillo was a sincere Catholic; he could feel his subject in accordance with the Church’s teaching, and moreover he had the gift of telling the story in the vernacular; depicting it in familiar guise and investing it with those touches of everyday life that pique and hold the interest of the simplest mind.

To be indifferent to the genius and value of such a gift is to admit oneself a careless student of human nature. It is either that we refuse to be interested in what interests the masses, or that we underrate the virtue of the latter being thus interested. Today, in our modern experience, there are thousands of illustrators; but if one looks back, say, twenty years, how many are there who have been leaders, in the sense that they have caught the spirit of the age for the first time and given it an expression which the educated and unlearned alike recognise as something vital? This is the point. For the thousands who can perpetuate a tradition, imitate some-body else, or carry on the accepted convention, there will be found but one or two who can synthetise the time-spirit into a new expression. And for the worth-while of doing this? I repeat that, to-day, illustration is mainly a method of amusing vacant minds. But it was not so in the seventeenth century, any more than during the early and the great days of the Renaissance. It was something that influenced the lives of millions in their attitude to what, then at least, was of supreme moment, religion. Therefore, to estimate the genius and value of Murillo’s gift of illustration we must not judge it from the standpoint of to-day, but in the light of the needs and desires of his contemporaries. Then we shall realise that what Murillo did for the simple, religious folk of Seville is akin to Raphael’s contribution to the mingled Humanistic and Christian needs of Rome. Both were great illustrators, whose subject matter was religion, and who told their story in the medium that appealed to the sympathy and understanding of the largest number of people of their day. But the very freedom from Humanistic influence which characterised Murillo’s art encreased its value to the people of Seville. It was essentially Spanish in its naturalism and specifically Andalusian in its sentiment.

Murillo’s method of painting has been described as exhibiting three styles—cold, warm and vaporous. According to this arrangement, the first style (estilo trio) is distinguished by cold coloring and dark shadows; the second (estilo calido) by warmth of coloring, stronger contrasts of luminous light and shade, and by increased plasticity of form; the third, (estilo vaporoso) by the vaporous or misty effects of atmosphere, enveloping the whole or part of the composition. But while his works show this variety of method, they cannot be distributed into periods, definitely characterised by one or another style. Nor will it repay the student to try to docket the different pictures according to any such pigeon-hole system of division. He will rather become aware that, as Murillo attained to facility and confidence in his own way of rendering his intentions, he perfected his pictorial representation both of the naturalistic motive and of the spiritualised conception, which in whole or in part for the time being occupied his imagination. In some pictures you find the naturalistic motive either predominating or in complete control; in others it is combined with the spiritualised motive; while again, particularly in the Conceptions, the spiritualised intention is exclusively apparent. Whether it satisfies your own spiritual sense is another matter.

Nor can these varieties of motive be assigned to special periods of Murillo’s career. For example, after he had established his reputation as a painter of Conceptions, he executed. the series of works for the Hospital de La Caridad, in Seville. Two of these are produced on page .150. They were selected because they redounded to the reputation of Murillo in his lifetime, and yet exhibit a weakness which more or less is evident in all his works of illustration.

Neither the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, nor Moses Striking the Rock, contains any spiritual suggestion; for to the modern imagination at least the figure of Christ in the one and those of Moses and Aaron in the other seem to be invested only with a little symbolical distinction. Further, even the significance of the events is not suggested. If you take away the Christ, whose importance in the composition is already belittled by the group of women on the right, is there anything in the action of the figures and the expression of their faces to indicate that they are witnesses of a miracle? The scene becomes nothing more than a huge picnic, conducted on an absurdly meagre commissariat. So too, in Striking the Rock—where is the hint of the agony of thirst or of high-wrought emotion at the miraculous deliverance? But for the two central figures, whose impressiveness, such as it is, is confined to themselves, the incident might be simply that of a party of people gathered about a spring. To myself a very suggestive indication of the shallowness and insincerity of the whole conception is the introduction of the small boy on the sleek plump horse. It is a mere studio device for getting a spot on which to concentrate the light and for lifting one figure above the line of the others.

Another example of this series of Hospital subjects is the very famous S. Elizabeth of Hungary, now in the Prado. The scene is being enacted in the shadowed arcade of an imposing classical building. The saintly Queen, attended by two young ladies, charmingly attired, is washing the scalp of an urchin, who leans over a silver basin. A beggar sits on the ground removing a bandage from a festering sore, and a boy, with an expression on his face of exasperated distress, scratches his head and chest. Meanwhile an old woman sits looking up in worshipful gratitude at the face of the queen, who possibly returns her gaze. For she is turning her head away from the business in which she is engaged, as well as she may, since the head she is bathing shows a disgusting sore. Perhaps you may say that such de-tails are incidental to a clinic, and may quote the example of Rembrandt’s Clinic of Dr. Tulp. But the latter is frankly a naturalistic picture in which the cadaver forms the explanation and focus of the group of eager, intellectual heads, absorbed in the instruction of the master-surgeon. But Murillo’s is an academically disposed composition, involving splendid classical accessories. It’ is, in the manner of its form, idealised according to the Italian tradition, while in its details grossly naturalistic. Yet Theophile Gautier, moved to a characteristic burst of sentiment, exclaims—”In his picture of S. Elizabeth Murillo takes us into the most thorough-going reality. Instead of angels we are here shown lepers. But Christian art, like Christian charity, feels no disgust at such a spectacle. Everything which it touches becomes pure, elevated and ennobled, and from this revolting theme Murillo has created a master-piece.” This begs the question which still remains

Is the reality in this case so rendered, that it becomes “pure, elevated and ennobled”? The answer will depend upon the individual student’s temperament and intellectual attitude.

This picture, indeed, and many others in the Prado arouse a suspicion which becomes more pronounced, when we visit the Museum and the Church of the Hospital de La Caridad in Seville, that, after all, Murillo was not so great a naturalist as he is credited with being. His Street urchins, such as appear in the National Gallery, Dulwich Gallery and the Munich Pinakothek are vigorous transcripts of nature, racy with Sevillian character; but in the Holy Family, called Pajarito (little bird) of the Prado, one discovers already a weakening of the naturalistic grip. The types are local, and the scene, as the mother stops in the winding of her thread to watch the child playing with a dog, while the father holds him tenderly, is such as might be enacted in any happy home of the people. But why the voluminous yellow mantle spread in graceful folds over Joseph’s knees? It is a recollection of Raphael that has inspired this solecism in the everyday naturalness of the scene. Similarly, in one picture after another of Murillo’s you can find the realities of the scene sacrificed to the picture-making devices learned from the Italians. Frequently, as in the Vision of S. Antony of Padua, and corresponding subjects, the miraculous nature of the incident gives a plausibility to these formal designs, which I venture to believe is lacking in the S. Elizabeth, Loaves and Fishes and Striking the Rock.

Nor is much of the nobility of the Italian method reproduced in Murillo’s use of it. Too frequently its stateliness is invaded by a homeliness which borders on the commonplace. One finds little or nothing of the aristocrat in Murillo’s equipment. He views his subject with the naivete of an untutored mind and represents it with a simple disregard of anything that might lift it’ above the commonplace. And this is practically as true of his technique as of his mental approach. There are beautiful passages of color scattered through his works ; fine rendering of textures, and precious morceaux of still-life. But his color-schemes are regulated by temperament rather than by knowledge and calculation; his brush-work is rarely distinguished and his chiaroscuro frequently has grown blackened with time. It would be impossible to view one of his acknowledged masterpieces beside even a work of secondary interest by Velasquez, without realising at once the hopelessly unbridgeable gulf both of mentality and execution that separates them.

In fact, it is not until one comes to his Conceptions, that Murillo acquires distinction. In these he shows an originality of idea, to which he has moulded for himself a suitable technique. He has learned to preserve the plasticity of form and yet invest it with a suggestion of being impalpable, and also buoyant, so that it floats of its own lightness. The arrangement of the subject, even to the colors, was prescribed by the Church; being founded upon the vision, recorded in Revelation XII. 1. “And there appeared a great wonder in Heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” It is Murillo’s triumph that he dematerialized the concrete suggestion; created about the figure the luminousness of unearthly light and, while he took for his model a girl of the people, invested herself and her angelic surroundings with the imagined reality of a vision. This, it is needless to add, represents a triumph of technique. In these subjects Murillo proved himself a superior and original painter. As to the quality of feeling expressed in them opinions may differ; but it can scarcely be questioned that it is emotional rather than spiritual. There is nothing in it of soul ecstasy, as in El Greco’s visions; it is the sweet, rapturous sentiment of the warm-blooded, emotional South. The Conceptions, in fact, are the most characteristic product of the Andalusian School and the highest achievement of Murillo.

In conclusion let me quote the observations of the French critic, C. E. Beule, concerning that portrait of Murillo’s which he painted of himself when he was in the flush of youth with all his possibilities before him. “We find him brilliant, ardent, fresh-colored, the warm blood flowing close under his skin ; his eyes black, penetrating, full of fire and fuller still of passion; his fore-head high, and modeled with those slight bosses which show a quick but rather feminine intelligence; the lower part of his face (as is frequently the case with his countrymen) less finely cut, and marred by a coarse mouth and the heavy outline of the chin. The total impression is that of a nature in which ardor serves instead of force, a facile but superficial rather than profound intelligence, and, as a prime trait, highly mundane and sensual. Are not these the very qualities we find written in his works ?”

Murillo’s end was brought about by a fall from a scaffold. He lingered for a short time, spending his days in contemplation of Campana’s Descent from the Cross in the Church of Santa Cruz. He died on the third of April, 1682, and was buried, in accordance with his request, beneath this picture.