Introduction

This exhibition commemorates the four-hundredth anniversary of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s birth by bringing together his only two known self-portraits. They were last documented together in 1709, when they belonged to the painter’s son Gaspar. These two canvases are the images that have, through the centuries, memorialized the features of one of the most celebrated Spanish artists of the seventeenth century.

Murillo was born in Seville at the end of December 1617 and baptized in the parish church of Santa María Magdalena on January 1, 1618. His successful career as an artist was deeply embedded in the life of his cosmopolitan birthplace, where he died in 1682. Known primarily for his religious paintings, he produced a large number of images of saints and of the Immaculate Conception for the most prestigious ecclesiastical institutions of the city. He also painted allegorical works and genre scenes, especially depictions of street boys, for which he became particularly well known abroad. Little attention has been paid, however, to his work as a portraitist. Murillo: The Self-Portraits examines this aspect of Murillo’s career, focusing on the painter’s two self-portraits, one as a young man and the other as a mature artist.

The visual context of Murillo’s self-portraits is varied and complex. In creating these extraordinary artistic statements, he was inspired by ancient Roman relics — Seville was built over the ruins of ancient Hispalis — and by northern print culture, which was popular in Seville. Known as the “New Rome,” Seville was steeped in humanistic learning, and Murillo, who owned ancient coins, was particularly interested in antiquities. For inspiration, he looked at the stone remnants of a distant past, as well as flimsy prints and images produced for books. He was interested in trompe l’oeil effects, and often played with the boundaries between his audience and his own work and image. Murillo’s self-portraits remain potent statements about his art.