A Masterpiece of Spanish Painting Enters the Collection

This article is reprinted from the Winter 2015 issue of the Members’ Magazine.

painting depicting man dressed in black with mustache in oval frame


When the art historian Jacob Burckhardt visited the Louvre in 1843, a self-portrait by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo stood out amidst the superb Spanish works that made up the Galerie Espagnole, a magnificent collection assembled by King Louis-Philippe. Burckhardt wrote: “Murillo is still one of the greatest who ever lived. Here hangs his portrait (by his own hand). It is the key to all his works. . . . 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 passions?”

This engaging portrait, one of the most famous images of the artist, was the first Spanish painting acquired by Henry Clay Frick, who purchased it in 1904 for $22,000. The canvas was displayed at Eagle Rock in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts, one of the Frick homes, and has remained in the family for more than a hundred years. Now, owing to the generosity of Mrs. Henry Clay Frick II, it will be reunited with Spanish masterpieces by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya that were collected by Mr. Frick. This generous gift is a momentous acquisition for the museum, as no other work by Murillo is represented in the collection.

Together with Velázquez and Zurbarán, Murillo is one of the most celebrated Spanish painters of the seventeenth century. Born in Seville in 1617 to a barber-surgeon, he is particularly admired for his religious subjects and for his genre scenes, which generally portray urchins from the streets of Seville. Both Mr. Frick and his daughter, Helen, were great admirers of the painter, as documented in an entry from Helen’s diary, made during their trip to Spain in 1909. On March 29 of that year, after her last visit to the Prado, the twenty-one-year-old Helen wrote, “I had to say good bye to my old friends, and how I hated to have to do it, especially to the little St. John by Murillo.”

Murillo produced only a small number of portraits during his career, including two self-portraits. Both were recorded in the house of his son, Gaspar, following the painter’s death in 1682. The later one was created around 1670 and is now in the National Gallery in London; the Frick self-portrait was painted about 1650–55 while Murillo was in his thirties. (Coincidentally, the only other self-portrait at the Frick—Rembrandt’s—was painted at almost exactly the same time, in 1658.) In Murillo’s Self-Portrait, the artist represents himself as a gentleman, in an elegant black outfit with the typical Spanish collar (known as a golilla), confronting the viewer with a powerful and sophisticated expression. The portrait is set within a trompe l’oeil frame, seemingly carved from a heavy block of stone that appears to have been chipped and weathered over time. The block, in turn, rests on a stone ledge, on which Murillo’s basic biographical information has been inscribed in red paint by a later seventeenth-century hand.

The unusual stone frame imitates antique models. We know that Murillo, an ardent admirer of classical antiquity, collected ancient coins and would have known Sevillian aristocrats who were significant collectors of antiquities. The portrait’s oval format was no doubt intended to recall numismatic prototypes, thus referencing a very specific earlier world. While the artist intends to faithfully reproduce his own features, he also manages to successfully create a figure that links the past and the present. An ingenious juxtaposition of a contemporary portrait within an ancient setting, the Self-Portrait is a highly original pictorial invention.

After Gaspar Murillo’s death, the painting is recorded in the houses of several Spanish collectors before passing into the hands of Julian Williams, the English vice-consul in Seville. Baron Isidore Taylor acquired it from Williams in 1832 for the collection of Louis-Philippe. At the Louvre, the painting was displayed in the Galerie Espagnole with another masterpiece later acquired by Mr. Frick, Goya’s Forge. Following the fall of Louis-Philippe, in 1848, the contents of the Galerie Espagnole were dispersed and later sold at auction in London, and Murillo’s Self-Portrait entered the collection of Baron Seillière in Paris. It eventually passed to his niece, the Princess de Sagan, who sold it to Mr. Frick. 

The portrait is a wonderful addition to the permanent collection, which now boasts works by all the great Spanish masters. It is sure to captivate visitors to the Frick, perhaps as much as it did Burckhardt in 1843, who concluded, “ . . . there reigns 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! His mouth has kissed a lot, I believe.”

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), Self-Portrait, ca. 1650–55. Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection; gift of †Dr. and Mrs. Henry Clay Frick II

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