At Apsley House we have three paintings in the collection which are attributed or ascribed to the Spanish Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, including my favourite in the whole house. The title of my blog might give you a clue on that one…
In case you’re unaware of Murillo’s background (as I was), here’s a potted history:
He was born in Seville on, or around, New Year’s Eve 1617 to elderly parents. At the time, Seville was the artistic hub of Spain and was also home to Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez and to Francisco de Zurbaran — both of whom would influence Murillo and his work. The youngest child, with 13 siblings, he was orphaned when he was just 10 years old, and he then went to live with Ana, one of his sisters, and her husband. Artistry seems to have run in the family as an uncle and some cousins were all painters. He must have shown early promise because his brother-in-law apprenticed him, when he was only 12, to the painter Juan del Castillo (who was related to Murillo’s mother).
In his mid-teens, Murillo was an independent painter, producing small, religious pictures for home use; probably for the Latin American market. His early ambition was to emigrate to America — possibly to join family members — but he never made the journey, and he likely lived the whole of his life in Spain without ever leaving it. He did move to Madrid for a couple of years in his mid-twenties, but then returned to Seville.
In 1645, when he was aged 28, Murillo married the wealthy Beatriz Cabrera y Villalobos, 33, and soon after they had a daughter, Maria, the first of their nine (or 11, accounts vary) children. This was an auspicious year for Murillo because he also won his first big painting commission — 11 canvasses for the St Francis Convent in Seville. Today, the survivors are spread between European and USA collections. The subject matter for each one is a miracle, act of charity or an expression of ecstasy for a Franciscan saint or monk. It’s interesting to note, I think, that Murillo was a deeply religious man and he lived his life and most of the products of his career in dedication to the Catholic church. Two of the three Murillo paintings in Apsley House have religious themes: St Francis receiving the Stigmata (Waterloo Gallery) and Isaac Blessing Job (Yellow Drawing Room).
In 1660 Murillo was key in founding the Academy of Fine Arts in Seville, and was its first President.
During his later career, Murillo’s painting style changed and his religious pictures were softer, focussing on light and shade, and more sentimental — which increased their popularity and his success. Murillo was, and is, more well-known for his religious paintings than for his portraits, and it seems as though the sitters for the portraits are mostly unknown, even when they are named!
Murillo’s last commission was also the indirect cause of his death. In 1682 he was working in the city of Cadiz, at the Church of the Capuchins, painting canvasses which were positioned above the main altar. This meant that he had to use scaffolding, and he was working on the main central canvas when he fell about 20 feet to the floor and damaged his abdomen badly. As a result of the fall, he died a few months later from related complications.
At Apsley House there are two religious-themed paintings attributed to Murillo and one portrait which is ascribed to him*.
In the Waterloo Gallery we have St Francis receiving the Stigmata, which was a very popular art subject from the 13th century onwards, depicting the most important event in St Francis’s life. The painting, an oil sketch, hasn’t always been accepted as being by Murillo because oil sketches like this are unusual for him. However, over the years, comparisons with other definite work by him make it very likely that it’s a true Murillo painting*.
Of the two biblical Murillo artworks at Apsley House, I favour this one. I like the way that the seraph is depicted, with the light adding to a feeling of other-worldliness, and St Francis’s expression showing that he’s blown away with what’s just happened.
In the Yellow Drawing Room, a bit hidden away, we have Isaac Blessing Job. This painting shows a fair amount of landscape in the composition and that is rare for Murillo. Again, there has been dispute over whether this is, in fact, by Murillo, but expert opinion has decided that it probably is.
There’s another version in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg that is, apparently, more finely painted — this one at Apsley House is considered to be more of a coarse sketch*. For me, this painting is a dull subject and the figures are too blurred to be interesting; not one of my favourites.
Ta dah! At last, we get to An Unknown Man — which is my very favourite. 18 months ago, when Robin was taking me around the House on my volunteering induction day, I spotted this picture in the Waterloo Gallery and loved it straight away.
When I first saw the painting, it was hung in a prominent place very close to the picture of Charles 1 which is over the fireplace. Then when attribution was confirmed to a Titian in the Collection, the Unknown Man’s position was swapped and he is now higher up the wall and more difficult to see — but very much still worth the effort.
In my imagination, the Unknown Man is an up-and-coming professional. He looks, to me, like a lawyer, a doctor or a scientist but, who knows? In any case, I like the confidence in his attitude and the way that his clothes have been painted, especially the lace cuffs.
Unlike the two biblical paintings, however, The Unknown Man’s attribution to Murillo is in doubt. This picture was bought by the Duke, so it wasn’t in the Spanish royal collection, and provenance seems to be less clear cut than for the other two*. The clothes he is wearing are typical of the style in the late 1640s, but could be either Spanish or Italian or a mix of both. Art experts seem to be either definitely for or against Murillo being the artist, so the picture is ascribed (verb: to credit or assign, as to a particular origin or period) rather than attributed (verb: to consider as a quality or characteristic of the person, thing, group, etc indicated) to him. Never mind, I still love it!
* Reference: Catalogue of Paintings in the Wellington Museum Apsley House; CM Kauffmann, Susan Jenkins, Marjorie E Weiseman © 2009 English Heritage and Paul Holberton publishing