NEW YORK—Best known for his religious and genre paintings of street urchins, the Golden Age Spanish master, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682) left us with two very strange and unique self-portraits, painting his own image within painted stone frames—one at the beginning of his flourishing career in his 30s (circa 1650–55) and the other about two decades later (circa 1670). The artistic conceit of setting himself in stone and emerging beyond the painted frame within the actual frame of his paintings served him well in reaching across time.
In celebration of the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth, The Frick Collection opened the exhibition “Murillo: Self-Portraits,” running through Feb. 4, 2018. The exhibition will later travel to London’s National Gallery (Feb. 28–May 21, 2018).
In 1724, Murillo’s first biographer described him as an eminent portrait painter, but only 15 of his portraits have survived. Xavier F. Salomon, curator at The Frick, and Letizia Treves, curator at London’s National Gallery, have thoroughly researched Murillo’s life and work to produce an unprecedented exhibition and its accompanying book, which focuses on six of the artist’s portraits (including his two self-portraits) and 12 related works (including prints of Murillo’s self-portraits by other artists).
The exhibition reunites Murillo’s self-portraits for the first time in over 300 years. The earlier of the two was the first Spanish painting acquired by Henry Clay Frick, in 1904. The later self-portrait is owned by London’s National Gallery.
If you would ask anyone today what Murillo looked like, most would refer to the later self-portrait, which has been on view at the National Gallery for the past century, more or less, Salomon said. But up to the early 20th century, when it was bought by Frick, the earlier self-portrait was the standard.
A Splendid Man
The younger image of Murillo was copied in drawings and engravings by Manuel Alegre (1790); used as a reference for his likeness in a stucco at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (after 1770); copied in part of the mural painting “Hemicycle” (1837–41) by Paul Delaroche in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris; and referenced for the podium of painters created by Henry Hugh Armstead, as part of the “Frieze of Parnassus” at the Albert Memorial (1872) in London’s Kensington Gardens.
In the 19th century, the portrait arrived in France and was displayed for 10 years at the Louvre, in part of the Galleria Español of King Louis Philip.
It was so famous, Salomon said, that it prompted the 25-year-old art historian Jacob Burckhardt, who saw it in the Louvre in 1843, to write:
“Murillo is still one of the greatest who ever lived. Here hangs his portrait (by his own hand). It is the key to all of his works. Compare it with the beautiful cavalieros from the court of Don Philip the IV, which by no means badly painted by Velasquez, shine forth here from the wall, and you will comprehend what elevated Murillo above his own time. It is the physical and intellectual power still wielded by this force of nature. … Look at these splendid, slightly pouting lips! Do they not reveal the man of action! These slightly retracted nostrils, these flashing eyes, under the splendid, wrathfully arching eyebrows, this whole face, is it not an arsenal of passion? Yet, above it there reign supreme an imperious forehead, which ennobles, controls, spiritualizes everything, and by its sides the most beautiful jet black locks flow down. Happy the woman who has been loved by this man!”
This wonderfully over-the-top adulation of Murillo, “shows you also that at the time, up to the 20th century, Murillo was much more famous than Velazquez,” Salomon said.
“People loved the religious pictures, what we now define as the sentimental pictures ([also], the street boys). … It is just a question of sensibility of the time,” Salomon said. “And subject matter too. We clearly find it more difficult to deal with religious subject matter these days.”
A Bizarre Conceit
Salomon has “wracked his brains,” he said, in trying to understand Murillo’s stone frame trompe l’oeil device. It was probably inspired in part by Northern European prints. As an example, the exhibition includes an allegorical portrait engraving by Paulua Pontius (circa 1626) of the powerful Gaspar de Guzmán, count-duke of Olivares and court favorite of King Philip IV, after a Diego Velazquez portrait and a Peter Paul Rubens allegorical frame design, epitomizing fame.
The city of Seville, where Murillo lived all of his life, may have also inspired him to frame himself in a hollowed-out stone block that looks chipped and battered over time, and which is sitting on top of another stone block. Seville was built on Roman ruins over the ancient city of Hispalis. Murillo possibly collected ancient coins and had an interest in antiquity.
He painted his older self-portrait in his 50s, a few years after his wife’s death. He appears again gazing straight at the viewer, but with a weary expression. His hand rests on the oval stone frame as if connecting with the viewer. Just outside of it, he painted the signature attributes of an artist: a ruler, a sheet of paper with a red-chalk figure drawing, a compass, a chalk holder, his brushes, and his palette with the same colors he used for all of his paintings.
Setting himself in stone so mysteriously may have been his way of triumphing over the tragedies in his life: both of his parents died when he was a 10-year-old boy; he became a widower when his wife died in childbirth; and only four of his nine children survived to adulthood.
While painting his last commission, a series of canvases for the Capuchin Church of Cadiz, he stumbled going up the scaffolding and fell, rupturing his intestines. He died a few days later on April 3, 1682. Soon after Murillo died, an engraving was made after his self-portrait by Richard Collin, to commemorate the artist.