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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was a highly regarded Spanish Baroque painter who fused together the traditional styles of Spanish art with influences from Italy and Northern Europe. He specialised in religious art, though freshening up this genre with an increased emotional connection.

The artist was capable of producing extraordinary depictions of religious themes, with The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables and The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial being fine examples of the best that the Spanish Baroque era could deliver. He also was able to focus on local people too, with a number of sensitive portraits of local Seville peasants that offered an alternative strand to his impressive oeuvre. Murillo learnt much of his craft in his native Seville but also travelled elsewhere in order to broaden his artistic knowledge, with Madrid and Cadiz helping to introduce him to the styles of Italy and Northern Europe. His inclusion of strong emotion within his religious paintings would attract a wide variety of followers and the public found his work extremely accessible. He would eventually be courted by collectors all across Europe which helped to raise the value of his paintings considerably. Murillo would also inspire others to take elements of his approach into their own careers, with a number of famous artists that followed on shortly afterwards mentioning his name specifically as a source of inspiration and influence.

One element which has contributed to this artist's fame across the European continent is in how his paintings have been dispersed fairly widely. Major galleries within the UK, Spain and France have a number of items from his career and this has helped many to discover his work without having to travel to his native Seville. He also starred during a strong period in Spanish art, and so there has always been a considerable focus upon the famous names from around the 17th century and just after. His devotion to both religious and secular art has also strengthened his reputation and made it less susceptible to changing tastes and fashions over the past few centuries. Today he continues to be highly regarded and exhibitions of his work are fairly common considering that more than four hundred years have passed since his birth. The likes of the National Gallery in the UK as well as the Frick Collection have worked hard to restore some of his paintings and to present a thorough summary of them to the public in recent years, ensuring his legacy continues today.

Summary of the Artist's Life

The artist was born in late 1617, though the precise date has never been determined. The first record of the artist's life was from his baptism in Seville on the 1st of January, 1618. As was the way during the 17th century, Murillo had many siblings, though most would not survive childhood. He is believed to have either been born in Seville itself, or perhaps the town of Pilas which is located fairly close by. Sadly his own parents would also pass away whilst he was around ten years old and from then on he would fall under the guidance of other family members, some of whom were artists. He studied art in Seville as a young man and initially was highly influenced by other Spanish artists, including Francisco de Zurbarán, Jusepe de Ribera and Alonso Cano. At that point he was working predominantly within the Realism art movement but was also looking to discover alternative styles. He would then start to come across Flemish and Italian art and also learnt more about which approaches would prove most popular with local patrons.

He would then spend his time between Madrid and his native Seville, discovering other artists who introduced further development into his career, including the world famous Diego Velazquez. He would marry Beatriz Cabrera y Villalobos and have eleven children in total. He would continue to share his time between Madrid and Seville, though his base was always the latter. His next few decades were filled with productivity and several masterpieces as he refined his own approach. Eventually he would set up an academy within his native Seville, perhaps hoping to leave some sort of legacy as he started to plan for later life. Sadly an accident in the 1680s would injure him severely and he would pass away shortly afterwards. By that point, though, he had established himself as both popular but also highly respected for his technical expertise and the innovations that he brought to Spanish art. Read further detail in our Murillo biography.

Influences on Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

There was an excellent blend of artists who influenced Murillo as he developed his own artistic approach. Although his work can be considered particularly unique, there are influences to be found from both national and international artists. He was fortunate in being able to see some master artworks whilst growing up in Seville and his travels to Madrid and Cadiz would expose him to further great names from the near and distant past. Originally, he would look to Spanish art mainly, and from this he was most impressed by the work of artists such as Diego Velazquez, Francisco de Zurbarán and Jusepe de Ribera, all of whom were either around during his lifetime, or not long before. Flemish art would then provide an additional layer of inspiration, thanks to the likes of North European masters like Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens. Part of his success would be the ability to fuse these different styles together to create something entirely new.

Murillo's Most Famous Paintings

One of the artist's best known works would have to be The Young Beggar which captures a young boy sat in the corner of a dark room. The honest depiction is delivered in a realist manner which really brought home the scene to the viewer, though for Spanish collectors this was too much to bare. Instead, the artist was actually catering for some of the foreign collectors who were particularly fond of this style of work. Murillo would produce many more in this style across the 1670s which helped him to strengthen his reputation in regions such as Italy and Northern Europe, whilst also demonstrating how he could work in different styles. His work in this genre may have been influenced by his knowledge of the career of Diego Velazquez, who several decades earlier had produced the related piece, The Water-Seller of Seville. Additionally, The Young Beggar may well have encouraged others to continue this approach, such as French painters such as François Bonvin, Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet.

Murillo's Two Women at a Window from circa 1655 will remind many of a number of similar artworks which appeared both before and after this piece. We find before us here a charming portrait of two women playfully standing by their window. It is another example of how the artist loved to capture the lives of relatively ordinary people, normally within his hometown of Seville. He would feature all levels of society across his career and this perhaps reminds us of his famously polite and kind personality which appeared to continue into his lack of snobbery towards lower levels of society. In this case it is likely that the painting was again produced for the foreign market, where local Seville collectors were not so interested in this type of content. The city had strong trade routes which made it easy for the artist to promote and sell his work and he purposely chose particular styles in order to appeal to the different audiences. This painting might have influenced Manet's The Balcony.

A classic piece of Baroque art from 1670 - 1675 is known as The Little Fruit Seller. Here we find a traditional format which the artist knew would prove popular with several specific patrons of that period. It would eventually make its way to Germany, and can now be found in the highly prestigious Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany. This style of art can be found even outside of the Baroque era, with perhaps some being reminded of work by the Realist painters, such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau. In Murillo's work we find a girl and boy living with the worries of the world a million miles away, and this sort of innocence and happiness has proven almost timeless, continuing to be appreciated even today, some three and a half centuries later. It also reminds us of how Murillo would focus on all levels of society across his diverse oeuvre, which was still relatively rare in Spain up to that point.

The artist also produced a touching scene during the period of 1668-1670 for the artwork titled Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda. This memorable piece was one of a series that he was commissioned to produce for a hospital in Seville. The themes were dominated by religious content, but with the intention of providing patients with renewed hope during times of difficulty. A youthful Christ is depicted in an accessible manner, which was not how Spanish artists had traditionally captured this iconic figure. The overall series was well received by the art community at that time, perhaps as much as any other series of paintings from the rest of his career. His sensitive artistic style seemed ideally suited to these connections between humanity and the divine and this provided a point of difference from most earlier Spanish artists of previous decades. Murillo seemed to be able to adapt his approach for each patron, as he learnt about their specific tastes.

As mentioned previously, Murillo was highly skilled in bringing religion and humanity together, and we see another example of that within The Holy Family with a Bird from circa 1650. This charming scene feels particularly traditional in style and content and would perhaps have appealed most to the artist's domestic audience at that time. Murillo features elements of work in order to signify the figures included here and also to bring a sense of connection with the viewer. The lighting is also particularly abrupt, showing influence from Italian art. Technically, the artist displays much in this work, both with the charming dog who holds out his paw, as well as the rolls of material in various items of clothing and also the portraits of the figures themselves. This piece is one of the stand out items to be discovered at the iconic Prado Museum in Madrid, a venue which hosts a good number of items from this artist's career.

One of the best venues to discover original Murillo paintings is at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain. Amongst their impressive collection is The Virgin of the Rosary, sometimes known under the alternative title of The Virgin of the Escorial. This dramatic piece features a striking use of light and darkness which immediately recalls in our minds the work of Caravaggio, and perhaps Rembrandt as well. Murillo's work is however has none of the dramatic horror that the other two might include. Instead, we find a relatively sensitive piece set within a relaxed, personal setting. The bond between mother and baby is strong, and no other elements can distract us from this main focal point. Virgins would dominate a large number of paintings within the Renaissance but Murillo's use of them was more carefully chosen and normally dictated by the particular patron for each commission. Some have put forward the work of Raphael as a potential influence of this painting, though a number of others have also been suggested, as we do know that Murillo studied a number of European artists across his career, which was mainly down to who was featured in his local galleries of Seville, Madrid and Cadiz.

The Legacy of Murillo

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo would set up a local academy within Seville which allowed the artist to take on some pupils. His work was also particularly popular within his own lifetime and this brought him a large number of followers, some of whom would continue to work in his style even after his death. There would also be a large number of copies made of his paintings in a manner which showed a deep respect for his work, and these would appear all across Europe. Several major art galleries now display copies of his work from around that period, such was the level of quality that some of them displayed. His career was also recent enough that most of these alternative works have been correctly attributed to specific artists and locations, allowing historians to get a clearer picture of the geographical spread of his reputation. Many famous artists who produced their own unique oeuvres would also take elements of his style into their own, including the likes of Gainsborough and Reynolds who themselves were highly accomplished British portrait painters. He is also known to have directly influenced the likes of Francisco Meneses Osorio, Pedro Núñez de Villavicencio and Jean-Baptiste Greuze.