The artist would find favour both in his native Spain but also elsewhere in Europe and quickly learnt how to appease these two very different markets. Much of this knowledge came from his experiences in Madrid and Seville art museums, in which he could study Spanish and North European art in detail. He would ultimately take elements of both into his artistic style, but would tailor content to suit these two different tastes in order to ensure a steady stream of satisfied patrons. Religious art would be his main genre but there were also a number of portraits of local people which offered something fresh to the 17th century art world. He was around at a time when Spanish art was booming and he could study the work of other recent Spanish masters which enabled him to develop an impressive base of technical skills which could then be applied to a wide range of commissions once his career took off.
The artist was known for creating an atmosphere of sensitivity and emotion within his artworks, normally allowing us to connect to the different figures that appeared within his work. He could also bring religious figures and humanity itself closer together, fusing the two in a manner which also made religious paintings much more accessible to the general public. This helped him to become particularly popular and for some years he might even have been considered the dominant force within Spanish Baroque art. This succeess was also matched in the work of others, with many copying his paintings elsewhere in Europe, and also in how he gained a large following who continued elements of his style in future generations. As a symbol of his achievements, most of his best work now resides amongst some of the most significant art galleries, all across Europe.
Murillo was fortunate to have lived in Seville at a time when it was highly prosperous, mainly thanks to strong trade routes with the New World. He was born in December 1617, though we are unsure as to the precise date, and then baptised on the 1st of January in the following year. He would ultimately keep Seville as his base for its whole life, though with extended periods living in Madrid in order to develop as an artist. He also visited Cadiz for much the same reasons too. Bartolomé Esteban was born into a large family but, as was the way in the 17th century, his siblings would not live long and sadly his parents would also pass away when he was still relatively young. Some members of his extended family had already relocated to the Americas, taking advantage of the connections found directly from Seville, and for a brief period Murillo considered doing the same. The loss of his parents seemed to mark the end of his childhood to a certain degree, or at least the innocent, comfortable life that he enjoyed up to that point. And so he decided art was to be his chosen direction, leaving behind any plans for international travel.
The misfortunate to lose both of his parents so young was slightly balanced out by the large number of painters who existed within his extended family, which immediately gave Murillo exposure to the visual arts. They would encourage him to join the industry himself and had enough contacts to be able to start him off on the right path, once he had made the decision to head in this direction. Uncle Antonio Pérez was an artist, and was Vasco de Pereira, and eventually it was arranged for Murillo to learn his trade from Seville-based Juan de Castello. This was someone who perhaps lacked innovation, but was well acquainted with the technical aspects of painting and was therefore an ideal introduction to this world for the young Murillo who would start his apprenticeship at the age of just twelve. The artist would continue to learn from Castello for some years but also started to look elsewhere for inspiration, possibly studying the old masters in Madrid as a means to expanding his knowledge and potentially starting to develop a unique style all of his own.
The city of Seville would undergo a truly tough period in which almost half of its residents were lost to a plague in the space of just a few years. Charity became the key focus for many here and Murillo felt obliged to help the Catholic Church as best he could. Commissions still came in, but most required the themes of strong devotion and charitable behaviour towards others and so from this period onwards the content of Murillo's artworks would change. He also found it harder for a time to send work abroad as Seville's trading routes were no-longer as strong as they once were. This was a geniune individual who would have felt great sympathy for the plight of others, as shown in how he had already produced portraits of local people which other more ambitious artists might not have done. His talent ensured that he was still able to build relationships with other notable artists and they would help him to gain access to the Spanish royal art collection which further broadened his knowledge of art history, with artworks there including a number by Titian.
In order to allow the icons of Christianity to more easily connect with the general public across Spanish institutions, Murillo worked on creating a new sub-genre of art in which figures such as Christ as presented in a locally adapted form. This proved very popular and showed the artist still had the capability to innovate, even as his career matured. He would deliver Christ, the Virgin and others within his paintings disguised as local children which immediately was well received. Despite all his travels, stylistically, the artist's heart was still very much in Seville and this change in his style underlined precisely that. These sweet paintings were ideally suited to installation pieces, be it in small chapel rooms or devotional spaces in private residences. He would also receive some major commissions for the Santa María la Blanca Church and also the Hospital of the Venerables Sacredotes. Some of his commissions would require long series of paintings that would then take his attentions for an extended period of time.
Influences upon Murillo
The influences upon this artist came predominantly from two main regions, the North of Europe, and his own native Spain. He would essentially fuse elements of the two styles together, though initially he worked very much in the approach used by his tutor, Juan de Castello. Having learnt the technical aspects of painting he would then seek alternative influences and found these within the art galleries and museums of Seville and Madrid, where he would come across masters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck and Rembrandt van Rijn. Velazquez was famous all across his native Spain and so he was able to discover much of this artist's work fairly easily and there was also Francisco Zurbarán who was another key Spanish painter. His understanding of the qualities of each of these artists would help him to succeed in different genres which, in turn, allowed him to satisfy different tastes as his career progressed. The work of artists such as Murillo reminds us as to the importance of accessibility to art in one's development and how a reduced amount of influence will often stifle innovation.
There were many who considered Murillo more successful abroad than he was actually at home, with the artist making use of Seville's trading routes to send his art all across Europe. He particularly enjoyed a following of patrons within parts of Italy and also Northern Europe. This would be despite Murillo never actually leaving Spain himself. This span of reputation would contrast markedly with the career of Velazquez who was a domestic powerhouse with royal connections, but whom was not seen anything like in the same way abroad. Murillo had actually hoped to gain some assistance from Velazquez domestically, but this never came. We do know that the artist's genre paintings were specifically aimed at foreign audiences and that he would sell these to foreign merchants based in Seville who would then sell them to Genoese, Dutch and Flemish customers. Such content was already widely accepted in those regions at the time, but Murillo's fusion with Spanish traditional art made it a unique alternative.
Sadly, the artist passed away due to an accident whilst working. He fell from scaffolding and although he survived, the injuries would ultimately lead to his death just a few months later. His will stipulated that he wished to be buried in the Cathedral of Seville, and that request was granted. He would have been sixty four years of age at the time of his death and thankfully by that time the artist had already create an incredible legacy which would live on for many generations, both through a Seville academy that he set up for budding artists but also in the impact of his work more specifically, with followers passionately recreating his style all across Europe. Since then a number of artwork copies of his work have been uncovered and were so accurate that until recently many were actually attributed to Murillo himself.
The most significant impact left by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was in how he was able to bring a sensitive style to religious depictions. The public found his approach highly accessible and this ensured a steady stream of commissions for various religious buildings and organisations. He was technically influenced by previous Spanish artists but would eventually forge his own style with this increased sensitivity and connection between the figures in his paintings. There was plenty of scope for study even just in Seville, with masters on display and other artists found within his extended family. Murillo was also known as a kind, polite gentleman and perhaps that lied behind some of his religious artworks in which humanity and the divine could find a common ground for the first time. The artist would also work successfully within the field of Genre Painting, and this brought new supporters, particularly elsewhere in Europe, who seemed interested in the lives of the local Seville population. This type of honest art, which focused on the everyday lives of the ordinary was already common in other European nations and the impact of Murillo would help it to continue into the 19th century.
Murillo's legacy was most strongly continued through the work of his pupils who, in the main, stuck closely to the style taught to them by their master. The likes of Francisco Meneses Osorio, Juan Simón Guitérrez, Sebastián Gómez and Pedro Núñez de Villavicencio would spearhead a new generation of Spanish art whilst keeping a connection to influences from the past. Over time, though, religious art within Spain would start to lose popularity and this had a direct impact on how Murillo's own work was viewed. Whilst some artists would continue to take inspiration from some of his paintings, fashions were not kind to Murillo and he lost his position as the head of the Spanish Baroque from that point onwards. Thankfully many artists have been re-imagined in the 19th and 20th centuries, with some of the best returning to prominence. Botticelli is perhaps one of the best examples of that, and Murillo himself has also returned to favour more recently, with his technical and stylistic strengths now being more fairly analysed.