Four figures on a Step
Four Figures on a Step c. 1655–60. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617–1682). Oil on canvas; 109.9 x 143.5 cm. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas AP 1984.18
Spending most of his career in his native Seville, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was orphaned at the age of 10. He was apprenticed to the painter Juan del Castillo, but has much in common with the Spanish old masters Francisco de Zurbáran and Jusepe de Ribera, whose enigmatic and dramatic compositions shaped Murillo’s early style. It is fruitful to compare the Kimbell Art Museum’s Four Figures on a Step with the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Christ and the Virgin in the House at Nazareth (c. 1640) by Zurbáran. Painted within the space of two decades, both works display a darkened background that draws attention to expressive figures engaged theatrically in an intimate, invented scene.
Murillo’s primary patronage came from the church, and he rose to prominence painting religious pictures. But in his innovative depictions of lower-class genre scenes, hitherto unprecedented in Spain, he revealed daily life in his 17th-century town. These inventive subjects were beloved by collectors both during the artist’s lifetime and for many decades after his death. Murillo was celebrated as a master of Spanish golden age painting until the early 20th century, when his reputation declined. Now again acknowledged for his genius, Murillo’s puzzling genre scenes continue to intrigue audiences with subjects that defy easy interpretation.
Whether Four Figures on a Step depicts a humble family, a prostitute’s invitation, or a tender delousing, the participants evince a startling realism. It is easy to see how Murillo’s focus on the lower-class faces of the street was held in such high esteem by painters and collectors of the 19th century, when social realism resonated strongly as a genre. The glasses worn by the elderly woman may seem incongruous to modern audiences, but are in fact tied to the tradition of Spanish picarqesque (roguish adventure) literature, in which the celestina (procuress) is often represented as a bespectacled old woman wearing a headscarf. Her concerned expression is a poetic counterpoint not only to the mirthful and self-assured boy, but especially to the young girl, whose contorted, winking face seems to challenge the viewer.
Christ and the Virgin in the House at Nazareth c. 1640. Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664). Oil on canvas; 165 x 218.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 1960.117
Although Murillo did not travel widely, probably not even visiting Madrid where Velázquez worked, he was an admirer of Dutch painting, which he knew through prints. These may have inspired both the veiled seductress and the delousing vignette, which was a popular Dutch visual metaphor for spiritual cleansing. Whatever the identity of the figures, Murillo’s genre scenes deliberately evade simple classification and continue to perplex and reward viewers with the combination of slippery narrative and individualistic expression.
The Immaculate Conception c. 1680. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Oil on canvas; 220.5 x 127.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 1959.189
The artist, who was also a skilled painter of portraits, sensitively observes the characters. In Four Figures on a Step Murillo employs the darker palette characteristic of his early career. The genre scene can be dated to about 1655–60, and presents a fascinating contrast to two religious works by Murillo in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection that date from later in the artist’s career. The paintings Laban Searching for His Stolen Household Gods (c. 1665–70) and The Immaculate Conception (c. 1680) are lighter in tone and emphasize landscape and supernatural devotion, respectively, instead of the rustic realism of Four Figures on a Step. The loan of the Kimbell’s Four Figures on a Step provides the rare opportunity to compare Murillo’s dual nature as a bold and perceptive observer of street life, and a graceful painter of sweet spiritual visions.
Cleveland Art, May/June 2016