FORT WORTH — In the twilight of Spain’s Golden Age, in the 1660s and ’70s, the great Diego Velázquez had gone, and it was Bartolomé Esteban Murillo who reigned. When his work arrived on loan in 1830, the people of Boston fawned.
In our Cynical Age, however, Murillo has lost some favor. His specialty is devotional imagery — saints and cherubs and Virgins. His principal mode is charm. His brushwork is tactfully loose but never risky. We could blame it on secular modern life, but Velázquez’s cold dissections of courtly power and his vigorous action painting have proven much more popular.
A long overdue reassessment has arrived at the Kimbell Art Museum here. The painter’s largest show in America in 20 years, “Murillo: From Heaven to Earth,” curated by Guillaume Kientz, formerly of the Louvre and now director of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York, puts the spotlight on 54 paintings and sketches in a decidedly secular vein (and four paintings by relevant contemporaries). Until now, Murillo’s interest in class stratification was not seen to be so central to his work. For a painter “known primarily for his religious paintings,” as Kientz understates it in the catalog, these genre scenes, portraits and narratives reveal Murillo’s surprisingly social concerns.
Born in 1617 and orphaned by 10, Murillo properly left his native Seville, Spain’s port to the New World, only once. He saw Madrid for a few months in his 40s. No Grand Tour, no Italy, no tenure at court. This was rare for a painter of his stature. His commissions were dominated by regional charities, merchants and churches. Critics have always wondered, with some condescension, how he developed such a sure-footed style in his Andalusian isolation.
Poverty and charity were Murillo’s big concerns. He depicted them with the zeal of an Inquisitor and a helping of melodrama. In “San Diego de Alcala Feeding the Poor” (c. 1646), an inventive reworking of the Nativity with a cauldron of soup where baby Jesus should be, a starving mother’s breast spills from her ragged blouse. In Murillo’s “Prodigal Son” cycle, as the hero runs out of money and into disgrace, his silk doublet and finely paned sleeves disintegrate before our eyes. Far from biblical, he is a Golden Age aristocrat. By the climax, the dark “Prodigal Son Among the Swine” (1650–55), the boy is bare-chested, boots shredded to sandal.
Clothes crumble, again, in Murillo’s portraits of giggling street urchins. A gallery of these tall canvases steals the show. While a boy reclines with a ballgame in “Invitation to a Game of Argolla” (c. 1665–70), a younger child in torn-up shoes, bread crammed into his open mouth, stares on with classic toddler’s indecision. Will he give in to the fun, as a duo of bad boys have done in the next canvas over, in “Boys Playing Dice” (c. 1675—80)? Or will he feed himself?
In “Young Beggar” (c. 1648), a work of formal brilliance on loan from the Louvre, a barefoot boy crumples in the corner of a dark room, and a single window illuminates his dirty feet and some crustacean shells on the floor. At least one scholar has identified the shells as dead scorpions — a symbol of “evil defeated” — but they might just as well be shrimp shells, the remains of a humble Seville meal. Indeed, the classical reading of Murillo’s orphans as illustrations of moral imperatives has obstructed a simpler social context, one the Kimbell exhibition brings back to light.
Plague struck Seville in 1647, when Murillo’s career was just blossoming. It halved the population. Famines followed in the ’50s. Then bread riots. Another plague in the ’70s. In 1680, an earthquake. All the while, the Guadalquivir River, which allowed ships into Seville, began to silt up, forcing trade southward to the coastal town of Cádiz.
These little parables of precarity, with their dull earth tones and barren landscapes, reflect the motherless, scorched-earth quality of Seville in decline. But where Goya would turn savage over Spain’s fortunes, Murillo stayed light, even cutesy. He had to sell, after all. Somewhere between Jacob Riis and Charlie Chaplin, Murillo offers a knowing but escapist prance through need.
Strangest of all is the Kimbell’s own “Four Figures on a Step” (c. 1658–60). We are asked, forced really, to stare through a little boy’s torn pants into the bare cleft of his bottom. (When the Kimbell acquired the canvas in 1984, the pants had been painted shut. Following X-radiography, conservators restored it.) At left, adolescents ridicule the child. At right, a woman cradles his head, delousing him. All eyes are on us. The painting has raised questions and eyebrows, but Kientz is more sensible. In the catalog he argues that the viewer of this painting, like the hungry orphan tempted by a ballgame, “is given a sort of moral choice” between wrong and right. Laugh at the boy, as the teens do, or melt with the kindly woman.
I took a different view of the painting. What this weird ensnarement depicts, to my mind, is the impulse to pry into desperation. All the ruined clothing and bared flesh in this show suggests the painter was very aware (I hesitate to say cynical) about the emotional-industrial complex that kept the Catholic Church profitable. Suffering heightened sympathy. Sympathy encouraged charity. Charity got you into Heaven.
While there is plenty of “Earth” on loan here, what about the “Heaven,” the better known half of Murillo’s career? Murillo painted dozens of Virgins, overdoses of sweetness and palette. Down the road in Dallas, the staircase of the Meadows Museum is dominated by his desserty “Immaculate Conception” of the 1650s, where cherubs and clouds bear Mary softly into the stratosphere. Away from the Kimbell’s grungier Murillo, his celestial paintings still await their reassessment. That might truly revolutionize our understanding of this quiet, slightly didactic master.
Instead, this exhibition inspires us to look elsewhere. I’m thinking of Murillo’s “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine” (1680—82) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a canvas absent from the Kimbell show. Catherine was martyred on the wheel when she refused to recant her Christian faith. In Murillo’s telling, as she greets Mary and the Christ child, Catherine’s cortège of angels dissolves into a billowing meringue of vapor. Incompletion adds to the mystique, surely, as Murillo fell from a scaffolding while at work on this canvas and died shortly after. He had intended it for a convent in Cádiz, where all the port jobs were escaping from his hungry hometown.
It might now be seen as an elegy to old Seville. These unfinished angels grow a little clearer and a little more poetic in the light of Murillo’s reassessment in Texas.
Murillo: From Heaven to Earth.
Through Jan. 29, Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd, Fort Worth, Texas, (817) 332-8451; kimbellart.org.