The Wallace Collection houses one of Britain’s most important collections of paintings by the seventeenth-century Spanish artist, Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, with eight masterpieces and several by his workshop and associates, Francisco Meneses Osorio and Juan Simón Gutiérrez. They were all acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, and epitomise the ‘pleasing’ pictures he so favoured. This special display is timed to coincide with the exhibition, Murillo and Justino de Neve. The Art of Friendship being held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It reunites for the first time in over two hundred years the Wallace Collection paintings with a rarely-seen loan, which together formed part of one of his important cycles.
Recently major museums have begun to re-appraise Murillo, who was much revered throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when his work was eagerly bought by French and British connoisseurs. However, from the mid nineteenth century, his fame began to decline culminating for many in the twentieth century view of his art as unfashionably sentimental, an appropriate decoration for chocolate boxes. Recent books and exhibitions on the artist have all helped to restore the painter’s reputation and cement his important position within the European Baroque.
Murillo was equally famous for his paintings of both religious and everyday life, but all of those purchased by the 4th Marquess were of religious subjects. In these devotional paintings Murillo powerfully communicates the human emotions of his subjects, while at the same time endowing them with great beauty and grace. Such scenes as the Annunciation and the Adoration are a fusion of earth and Heaven, a powerful intermingling of grace and humanity.These simple but powerful works convey a spiritual calm and wonder today, just as they would have done in the turbulent times in which they were painted.
With the ability to encourage the viewer to be inspired, instructed, and hopefully minded to emulate his protagonists, it is perhaps little surprise that many of the paintings soon ended up in a Counter-Reformation church. In 1674 the merchant Giovanni Bielato bequeathed a number of paintings by Murillo to the Genoese Capuchin church. Six of these were purchased in 1805 for the agent William Buchanan and brought to London, three ultimately coming into the collection of the 4th Marquess of Hertford. In one room of the exhibition, they will be reunited with the only other painting from Buchanan’s six that has remained in Britain, thanks to the generous loan of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt from Wrotham Park. Displayed once more together, viewers will appreciate something of their original emotional impact.
Much of the undoubted appeal of these paintings is their masterful fusion of the depiction of divine grace and earthly realism. Murillo’s expressive technique and use of warm, delicate colour create a subtle, hazy effect of light and atmosphere. The freer style and warmer palette of Murillo’s late works shows his openness to the sfumato techniques associated with the Venetian, north Italian and Flemish painters such as Titian, Barocci, and van Dyck. We hope that this exhibition will serve to further the understanding and appreciation of Murillo as a key protagonist of Spain’s Golden Age.