Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Immaculate Conceptions

At the height of the Baroque period in Spanish painting, Bartolome Esteban Murillo created some of the most beautiful sacred and secular works. Baptized January 1, 1618, Murillo specialized in religious works centered on the figure of the Virgin Mary, such as his Immaculate Conception (above, from 1660-1665), including many beautiful images of the Virgin and Christ child. There’s a smoothness and imaginativeness to these images that makes the humanity at the center of these otherworldly scenes more believable. Murillo’s own humanity as expressed in these religious works as well as in his secular scenes, especially those of children, made him one of the most admired and copied Spanish artists up until the nineteenth century, when the reputation of his countryman and near contemporary Velazquez began to eclipse his.

The Young Beggar (above, from 1650) shows the affection and sympathy Murillo felt for the young, especially children living in poverty. I see a seamless transition back and forth between these depictions of real-life poverty and the poverty of the Christ child’s upbringing. When Murillo moved to Madrid in 1642, he studied the works of Velasquez first hand, as well as those of the Dutch and Italian Baroque masters found in the royal collections of the time. Such genre scenes, which also borrowed heavily from religious themes, inspired and informed Murillo’s own approach. Murillo shows such figures with quiet dignity, completely free of all judgment, and completely in tune with Christian charity.

Murillo’s gentle humor and warmth shine in his Two Women at a Window (above, from 1670). The woman at the rear is the chaperone of the young woman at the edge of the window, leaning forward perhaps to speak to a young swain calling up to her from below. The chaperone hides her laugh behind a veil, poorly disguising her pleasure over the proceedings between the young woman in her charge and the young man capering for their pleasure. Taking the idea of a strict protectress and turning it on its head, Murillo captures the basic humanity and freedom behind the rules and commandments of morality, including religious morality. Like the flexibility he demonstrates in his depictions of religious figures, Murillo allows these figures to be flexible in the pursuit of happiness, a higher calling than the blind pursuit of discipline for discipline’s sake. With such genre scenes, Murillo marries the Dutch talent for the telling anecdote of everyday life with the Spanish flair for romance and vitality. Murillo suffers for his proximity to the gigantic gifts of Velasquez, but deserves his own place in art history for offering something quieter, gentler, and subtly different from his countryman.

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