Bartolome Esteban Murillo is a leading Spanish artist who transformed seventeenth-century portraiture and religious paintings.
Here, we explore Murillo’s fascinating life and broad artistic influences to better understand his astoundingly creative work.
Born in late December 1617 and baptized on January 1st, 1618, Bartolome Esteban Murillo hailed from a middle-class Spanish family. His baptism took place in Santa Maria Magdalena, a beautiful baroque church in Seville.
The artist's mother is María Pérez Murillo, María, and his father, Gaspar Esteban, was a distinguished surgeon and barber in the City.
It’s unknown whether Bartolome Murillo is from Seville City or Pilas, a smaller town in the province of Seville. Nonetheless, we know his parents sadly died in 1627 and 1628. After this date, Murillo’s sister Ana Lagares, who lived in Seville, looked after the young boy.
Ana’s husband, Juan Agustin Lagares, was also a barber. It was a happy upbringing for Murillo, and he remained close to his sister into adulthood. Indeed, Murillo did not leave their home until his marriage in 1645.
Information about Bartolome Murillo’s early life is scarce. However, we know he began his artistic studies in the Juan del Castillo workshop.
Based in Seville, Castillo was Murillo’s godfather and uncle. Castillo is a Baroque painter whose skills provided deep inspiration to Murillo. Murillo's paintings emulate Castillo’s detailed facial expressions and intense realism.
In the early seventeenth century, Seville was a bustling commercial center. As a young artist, Murillo found inspiration from the paintings of leading artists such as Alonso Cano, Jusepe de Ribera, and Francisco de Zurbarán.
Murillo’s career and style evolved to meet upper-class tastes, particularly meeting the needs of the Roman Catholic church. As a result, his paintings are polished with a controlled technique, evidenced in works such as The Marriage of the Virgin and The Annunciation (1660-1665).
Murillo's beautiful painting of Christ, Ecce Homo, is held by the El Paso Museum of Art, previously owned by the King of France, Louis-Philippe d'Orleans.
In terms of his personal life, Murillo fathered ten children with his wife, Beatriz Cabrera y Villalobos. Sadly, only five children outlived their parents. Nonetheless, one son (Gabriel) continued his father’s artistic focus and set up a career as a painter.
Murillo’s fame stems from his reputation for religious paintings and worldly portraits of women and children.
Secular paintings include stunning portraits such as Two Women at a Window (1655-1660) and The Young Beggar (c.1645). At the time, Genre paintings were scarce in Spanish art, and Murillo created paintings to appeal to the Dutch and Flemish merchants trading from Seville’s bustling port. Indeed, his paintings are particularly reminiscent of paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn.
Murillo’s portraits offer fascinating insights into everyday life in seventeenth-century Spain. From street urchins to chatty friends, flower girls, and beggars, they form a unique document of clothing and social norms. His children were frequently cheeky and grubby, seen in humorous works such as Urchin Mocking an Old Woman Eating Polenta and Boys Eating Fruit.
In the year of his marriage (1645), Murillo received a significant commission for a set of eleven religious paintings for the Convent of San Francisco in Seville. The paintings present narratives of little-known Franciscan saints, focusing on a life of Christian contemplation and prayer.
Following this success, Murillo created other artworks for the Seville cathedral (painted in 1658) and the church of the Caridad. This latter commission included Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (1667-70), painted for the brotherhood’s hospital. Murillo was a member of the Church brotherhood, dedicated to helping Seville's sick and poor citizens.
Murillo's paintings joined tenebrism (inspired by the technique of Zurbarán and Caravaggio) with soft luminescence. The influence of Caravaggio's strong chiaroscuro appears in Murillo’s Virgin of the Rosary (1650), famed as Murillo’s finest double portrait. Unlike Caravaggio, however, Murillo paints both figures with softness and sweetness closer to the work of another Renaissance master, Raphael.
From the 1660s onwards, Murillo focused on topics, particularly in demand, notably the Immaculate Conception and Virgin and Child portraits. These included works such as The Assumption of the Virgin (1670) and the monumental Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables (c.1678).
Intriguingly, Catherine the Great (Empress of Russia) purchased Murillo’s Assumption of the Virgin. This painting is on display at The Hermitage, Russia’s national gallery.
While many art historians speak of Murillo’s famed kindness, he also connected significantly with the slave trade. n 1671, Murillo sold Juan de Santiago, his enslaved assistant, but he later freed another enslaved assistant Sebastián Gómez.
Murillo spent most of his adult life in Seville, Spain.
Nonetheless, he often visited Spain’s capital city, Madrid. During these visits to Madrid, Murillo saw the famous oil paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, and modern Italian artists.
After a trip to Madrid in 1658, Murillo’s artistic style changed. His brushwork is more expressive and free, with a muted, darker color palette. He had seen the works of Diego de Velázquez and loved the softly modeled forms and rich tones of the great Spanish master.
In religious paintings such as Ecce Homo (c.1670), Murillo’s new heightened emotion and loose, skillful brushwork are evident. This fresh style influenced later Spanish painters such as Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Goya’s religious paintings similarly conveyed the psychological drama of biblical narratives with long, free brushstrokes, elongated bodies, and dark backgrounds.
Once back in Seville from his travels in Madrid, Murillo founded the Academia de Bellas Artes in 1660. The Academy influenced a generation of later artists, and alongside the architect Francisco Herrera the Younger, the men supported many young artists with their education and early careers.
Bartolome Esteban Murillo was also massively productive during these years. He received many large commissions, including paintings for the Santa Maria la Blanca Church (1665) and fantastic altarpieces for an Augustinian monastery.
Murillo died in 1682 at the age of 64. He fell off some scaffolding in Cádiz while working on frescos at the Church of the Capuchins.
Even after his death, Murillo's paintings remained some of the most famous artworks in Europe. His renown lasted throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with many followers and pupils. Murillo’s art didn’t just influence Spanish painters. However, the iconic English British artist Thomas Gainsborough spoke of his influence, as did the French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
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