Andrew Graham-Dixon examines the works of the 17th century painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.
Murillo lived his whole life in Seville; records suggest he left it only once, in 1658. During the artist’s lifetime, plague, famine and crop failure all ravaged the city, halved its population and left the streets teeming with vagabonds and beggar children.
Murillo encountered a life of personal hardship himself. His wife died after twenty years of marriage having borne him nine children, only four of whom survived. The love for his own children, and compassion for the street children of Seville became an ongoing concern of Murillo’s life and work. In his quest to answer the question, ‘What can we do?’ Murillo entered into a lifelong friendship and patronage with Don Justino de Neve, canon of Seville cathedral.
De Neve used his considerable wealth to found religious sanctuaries for the needy, and in Murillo he recognised a painter capable of both sensitively capturing the plight of Seville’s poor and creating symbols of spiritual salvation through art.
Murillo’s work has been derided in recent times as too “chocolate box” – but Andrew Graham-Dixon shows how the relationship with de Neve and their mutual desire to help the people of Seville adds a new perspective to the artist’s work.