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A Seville partnership: late in his career, Bartolome Esteban Murillo created some of his most celebrated works for his friend and patron Justino de Neve. An exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery brings them together for the first time, offering new insight into Murillo's life and his artistic practice.

For the last three years, Dulwich Picture Gallery has been working closely with the Prado Museum in Madrid and the Fundacion Focus-Abengoa in Seville on an exhibition that brings together for the first time a group of late works by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1618-82) that were commissioned by Justino de Neve (1625-85), a canon of Seville cathedral, an important patron of art and a personal friend of the painter. As such, 'Murillo and Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship' (until 19 May) and the accompanying catalogue (edited by Gabriele Finaldi) represent a significant contribution to research on the artist's life and work.

The exhibition highlights Justino de Neve as the patron of some of Murillo's most outstanding and original works. Among them are one of the two large-scale lunettes of The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome: The Dream of the Patrician and his Wife, to be seen in the exhibition following its recent restoration and cleaning (1664-65); The Immaculate Conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes from the Prado (1660-65); the allegories of 'Spring' (?) as a Flower Girl (1665-70) and Young Man with a Basket of Fruit (Personification of 'Summer') (1660-65) from Dulwich Picture Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland respectively; and an exquisite religious composition painted on Mexican obsidian, loaned from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1665-70).

Of Flemish parentage, Justino de Neve was born in Seville. He was ordained in 1646 and made a canon of Seville cathedral in 1658. A cultured, energetic man, he enabled Murillo to obtain some of his most important commissions in the 1660s: the decoration of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca (1664-65), the decoration of the cathedral's chapterhouse (1667-68), and the commissioning of The Baptism of Christ for the upper level of the Saint Anthony altarpiece in that saint's chapel (1667-68), which has been taken down for the first time so that it could be restored and cleaned for the exhibition. In addition, Justino de Neve commissioned various works from Murillo for the Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes, the foundation for retired priests that he founded, while he also assembled his own collection of some of the artist's finest works. In 1665, as proof of their friendship, Murillo painted Neve's portrait (Fig. 2), inscribing it obsequium desiderio pingebat ('painted with the desire to give it'). Murillo also made Neve executor of his will in 1682.

One of the most important commissions Murillo and Neve worked together on was the decoration of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca, which had earlier been a mosque and then a synagogue before becoming a church following the expulsion of the Jews from Seville in 1391. Its reconstruction and redecoration began in 1662 under Neve's supervision. The dedication of the church was the same as the ancient basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, known in Latin as Sancta Maria ad Nives--or Saint Mary of the Snows--and it combined an allusion to the Virgin's snowy white purity with a fortuitous but happy reference to the canon's surname (Nives-Neve).

Murillo was commissioned to paint two large lunettes to be placed beneath the dome showing the origins of the Roman basilica (Fig. 3), and two smaller lunettes for the side aisles honouring the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and the Sacrament of the Eucharist (see Fig. 4). All of these were taken by the French in 1810, and although the two large lunettes were returned to Spain, the paintings of Faith or The Church Triumphant and The Immaculate Conception found their way to Buscot Park (the Faringdon Collection) and the Louvre respectively. Recent cleaning of all of these has revealed both the subtlety of Murillo's handling of light and the astounding fluidity of his brushstrokes.

To evoke how Murillo's lunettes would have looked in their original location, they have been uniquely displayed in the main part of Dulwich Picture Gallery's permanent collection, in one half of Sir John Soane's celebrated enfilade. Hung at height and inserted into fictive niches, they allow Murillo's ingenuity of composition--demonstrated by the way in which his arrangement of figures echoes the arch of the architecture--to be fully appreciated. As the piece de resistance, placed at the end of the enfilade and acting as the high altarpiece, Murillo's Immaculate Conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes crowns the decorative scheme (Fig. 1).

Justino de Neve personally owned a significant number of paintings, including 18 Murillos. Indeed, he is very likely to have been the first owner of Dulwich's celebrated Flower Girl (Fig. 5). Among the many religious paintings listed in his inventory, drawn up on 28 July 1685 following his death, was a painting of 'primaveru' (Spring) and 'berano' (Summer). Until quite recently, Neve's paintings of the two seasons were considered lost. The reappearance in 1999 of a canvas showing a young man with a basket of fruit and vegetables (Fig. 7) raised the question as to whether its subject might be identified as 'Summer', because of the ears of barley in his turban and the basket of fruits and vegetables he holds. This led to the suggestion that Dulwich's Flower Girl might be 'Spring', the roses about her being interpreted as spring flowers.

The two paintings are shown together in the current exhibition, in a room dedicated to Neve's private collection. When seen side by side, they work well as pendants. Compositional elements such as the white turbans worn by both sitters, with the rose for Spring and ears of barley for Summer, provide a strong visual connection. Likewise, both show seasonal pickings: freshly cut roses, a sprig of orange blossom, and fruit and vegetables in a basket. Stylistically, however, the pictures do not appear to have been painted at the same time. Summer is painted in a slightly tighter style, with more compact brushwork reminiscent of Murillo's style of the late 1650s. It also contains the tenebrist tonal effects that one finds in Murillo's earlier compositions, suggesting that this painting dates to the early 1660s. The Flower Girl, by contrast, is painted in a looser and more instinctive manner, particularly in the drapery and the flesh tones. The lighting is also more diffuse, especially on the sitter's face, presaging the 'soft focus' application of paint typical of Murillo's works of the 1670s. This painting would seem to be datable to between 1665 and 1670.

An X-radiograph of the Flower Girl has revealed a startling image beneath the paint surface whose existence supports such a dating. When the Flower Girl is positioned on its side, head to the left and roses to the right, the bottom half of an Immaculate Conception is visible (Fig. 6). A crescent moon appears beneath her shawl, extending through her face and out above her left ear. The shape of the bottom half of the Virgin's white mantle, with her right knee bent forward, is visible above the crescent moon. On the right, two angels holding the Virgin's attributes, a palm and roses, look at each other as they float among the clouds. On the far left, just visible beneath the area of the girl's right ear and the rose in her turban, another angel looks out, holding a bunch of lilies. Intriguingly, the same three angels appear in the bottom half of Murillo's well-known Immaculate Conception of El Escorial. That painting has been dated to around 1664 and, if this is so, the Flower Girl is likely to have been painted after that year on top of an exploratory canvas which Murillo recycled after cutting it in half.

While the identification of Summer remains convincing, the identification of the Flower Girl as 'Spring' is less straightforward. Her roses are damask roses that flower in late spring or early summer, and again in the autumn. Likewise, orange blossom comes out in the spring but has a second flowering in the autumn. Looking directly out at us with a half-smile, the girl seems to be in her early to mid teens. Rosy-cheeked with brown eyes and dark brown hair, she is in contemporary garb. Her dress was probably originally a deeper brick red (the organic red lakes applied by Murillo have become transparent with time), and above it she wears a white chemise under a yellow corset with slashed sleeves. Her shawl, which has been suggested to be of Mexican or Moorish origin, is close in design and colouring to the shawls woven in the highlands of Peru, which were imported into Seville directly from Lima.

Her identity has been the subject of discussion since the 18th century; she has been called a Bohemian gypsy girl, an Andalusian peasant girl selling flowers in the streets of Seville, a Moorish girl and even a courtesan. Another possibility is that the sitter was Murillo's own daughter, Francisca Maria (1655-1710). Murillo seems to have been close to his children, as is warmly commemorated in the Latin inscription on the cartouche of his Self-Portrait (1668-70). When his wife died in 1663, she left him with three sons and a daughter: Jose, Francisca, Gabriel and Gaspar, aged respectively 17, nine, seven and three. If the Flower Girl was painted between 1665 and 1670, the girl who posed for him would be the right age for Francisca, aged 11 to 14.

The connections become all the more intriguing when we learn that Francisca took her vows as a Dominican nun in 1671 (having begun her noviciate in 1669), receiving the name of Sister Francisca Maria de Santa Rosa after a Dominican nun from Lima, Peru, who was beatified in 1667 and canonised in 1671. As the first South American saint, Santa Rosa became extremely popular and Murillo was one of the first artists in Seville to paint images of her, two of them for the convent of La Madre de Dios, Seville, which Francisca had joined. Murillo himself also had links with the Dominican order. From 1644 until his death in 1682, he was an active member of the Confraternity of the Rosary of his parish church of La Magdalena, which was linked to the Dominican monastery of San Pablo. Both his wife and his father were buried there.

Given these connections, it is tempting to see Murillo's Flower Girl as a portrait of his daughter in the guise of a flower girl whose roses are symbolic of the religious name that she has taken, and the order which meant so much to the artist and his family. Such a suggestion remains only a hypothesis, but one final point that may support it is that Justino de Neve's family was also linked with the Dominicans and with Santa Rosa. Neve's sister and niece, Francisca Paula de Neve and Sebastiana de Neve y Chaves, were nuns in the same convent as Murillo's daughter. Sebastiana was particularly celebrated in Seville because she was reputed to have been cured miraculously from apoplexy thanks to the intercession of Santa Rosa of Lima in 1668. If Dulwich's Flower Girl was indeed in Neve's collection, then the roses would have been of multiple significance both to the artist and to Neve as its first owner, for both its religious and family allusions and perhaps also as a representation of Spring, combined in a single painting.

Neve's collection also included small paintings on panel, stone and copper, and a quartet of miniatures, identified later as by Murillo. It also contained works executed on Mexican obsidian, an exotic import that attests to Seville's central position in the 17th century as the leading European port for all kinds of goods from the New World. Neve would have used these small-scale works as aids to meditation and prayer. Murillo's Nativity (c. 1695-1700; Fig. 8) on obsidian is a particular highlight of the exhibition, mainly because it is so fragile and does not travel often from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It shows the Christ Child presented to mankind, tenderly watched over by the Virgin and Saint Joseph who are bathed in his light, an effect Murillo achieves through the natural milky veining of the obsidian. The deep black colour and sheen of the obsidian provides the work with a sense of drama and intimacy that focuses the viewer's attention upon the figures.

To coincide with the large exhibition on Murillo and Justino de Neve, Dulwich Picture Gallery has also organised a display of its own Murillo paintings. The Gallery owns one of the most important collections of paintings by the artist in Britain. Thirteen paintings by Murillo formed part of the original 1811 bequest by the Gallery's founders Nod Desenfans (17441807) and Francis Bourgeois (1753-1811), ranging from religious paintings of the Virgin and Christ Child to realistic depictions of beggar children.

Although they were by no means the first to collect paintings by Murillo, Desenfans and Bourgeois were instrumental as dealers and collectors in upholding public taste for his work in this country, inspiring artists and writers to respond to his handling of paint and naturalistic representations. Painters such as Gainsborough and Reynolds in the 18th century and, in the 19th century, David Wilkie and John Phillips paid homage to Murillo by emulating his style and romanticising his image as an artist. Victorian visitors to Dulwich were touched by the religious sentimentality found in Murillo's Virgin of the Rosary (c. 1675-80) and fascinated by the quasi-Dickensian realism of the two beggar boy paintings and the Flower Girl. So popular were they with copyists that the art critic John Ruskin commented disparagingly: 'I have never entered the Dulwich Gallery for 14 years without seeing at least three copyists before the Murillos. I have never seen one before the Paul Veronese.'

Today, four of these: the Virgin of the Rosary, the Flower Girl, Invitation to a Game of Argolla (1665-70) and The Three Boys (c. 1670) are recognised as some of Murillo's greatest compositions, while the remaining nine paintings have since been demoted as by his workshop or imitators and relegated to storage. This display has provided an opportunity to re-examine all 13 works, and has led to some fascinating discoveries. The Gallery's 'Adopt an Old Master' programme, with the special collaboration of the National Gallery's Scientific Department, has enabled the Gallery to bring out from storage three paintings with old attributions to Murillo so that they could be cleaned and technically examined. While The Infant Christ as the Good Shepherd can now be confirmed as an 18th-century copy after Murillo, because pigment analysis from the sky areas has revealed the use of Prussian blue (a pigment not invented until 1706), new evidence has come to light to indicate that The Adoration of the Magi (1660-65; Fig. 9) is an autograph oil sketch for an altarpiece now in the Toledo Museum of Art and The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin is likely to have been painted by Murillo and his workshop.

Dulwich's most celebrated paintings by Murillo are undoubtedly his beggar boy paintings, Invitation to a Game of Argolla (Fig. 10) and The Three Boys (Fig. 11). After two years of cleaning and restoration, the removal of layers of yellowed varnish, as well as a relining of the original canvases and sensitive retouching, has brought back the freshness and energy Murillo invested in these pictures.

The two paintings have always been considered a pair. Recent pigment analysis by the Scientific Department of the National Gallery has revealed, however, that the paintings were executed on different grounds, the base layer applied to the support in preparation for the paint layer. A reddish-brown ground was used for the Invitation and a light greyish ground for The Three Boys. This variation indicates that Murillo did not paint them in sequence but probably with an interval of at least five to 10 years.

X-radiographs of both paintings have also revealed interesting information to help us understand how Murillo developed his composition. In his earlier painting, the X-radiograph of Invitation confirms that the artist made no changes while working on his painting. Each figure is sharply defined and situated confidently in its own space, indicating that Murillo had a clear conception of the composition before he began work on his canvas. By contrast, the X-radiograph of The Three Boys (Fig. 12) shows that Murillo changed his mind as he was working, a rare occurrence for an artist who is thought to have drawn and planned most of his compositions beforehand. In the foreground we can see how he changes the position of the ceramic jug, which was originally behind the basket. Also visible is an extra basket with a wooden handle, which Murillo decided to omit. More important, however, are the changes he makes to the face of the smiling boy, which subtly alter the dynamics of the narrative. There are two faces beneath the one we see now. The first shows the boy's head at an angle resting on his shoulder. Murillo then decided to paint him with his head upright, smirking and baring his teeth in a mocking way. And instead of groping in the standing boy's pocket, he defiantly pulls the black boy's hand away from the pie.

These changes shed light not only on Murillo's working methods but also on the kind of poverty he wished to portray. He probably found the expression and gesture of the boy too physical and decided to tone them down. Although he takes the reality of poverty as his cue, his artistic eye and sense of composition act as filters. Indeed, it is often remarked that despite the grubby feet thrust outwards towards the viewer and the grime-encrusted fingernails of his subjects--which later so upset Ruskin, who described Invitation as 'mere delight in foulness'--Murillo's paintings can by no means be construed as a realistic portrayal of vagrant life in Seville.


Xavier Bray is Chief Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

'Murillo & Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship' is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until 19 May 2013. For more, go to
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Title Annotation:FEATURES: MURILLO
Author:Bray, Xavier
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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