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Exhibition Review – Murillo: The Self Portraits at the National Gallery from 28th February to 21st May 2018

Marking the 400th anniversary of the birth of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), the National Gallery presents an exhibition entitled  Murillo: The Self Portraits. This small exhibition reunites the artist’s only two known self-portraits for the first time in over three hundred years. 

Murillo is considered one of the most celebrated painters of the Spanish Golden Age and his best known for his religious paintings and depictions of street children. However this exhibition, highlights Murillo’s work as a portrait painter, an area of his work less well known. Portraits by Murillo are relatively rare, only around sixteen have been identified so far which include the two self-portraits featured in the exhibition.

The first self-portrait (about 1650-55), now in the Frick Collection, New York, shows Murillo in his thirties. Murillo’s face is illuminated by light and he is wearing the fashionable attire of the period.  

The later self-portrait (about 1670), in the National Gallery collection, shows Murillo around twenty years older. By this time he was considered the most important living artist in Seville. The ageing artist is shown with the tools of his trade and Latin inscription at the bottom translates as ‘Bartolomé Murillo portraying himself to fulfil the wishes and prayers of his children’. Family matters were clearly important at this time, although by this date, his wife and five of his children had died.

The exhibition shows six additional portraits, including Murillo’s first known portrait of Juan Arias de Saavedra, 1650 which has been restored especially for the exhibition and is being shown in public for the first time. The exhibition also includes the portrait of Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga, ca. 1655 which has recently been re-attributed as the lost original by Murillo following its re-discovery in Penrhyn Castle, Wales. 

The other portraits in the exhibition illustrate Murillo’s considerable skill with the informal A peasant boy leaning on a Sill 1675 and Two Women at a Window 1655- 60 and the more formal Portrait of Nicolas Omazur 1672 and Portrait of a Young Man 1650-55.

A print by Richard Collin based on a Self Portrait from 1682 which was produced just after Murillo’s death is an indication of the high esteem the artist was held in by his contemporaries. 

Murillo enjoyed a considerable reputation as an artist from the 17th century until the early 20th century when his popularity began to wane. Victorians in particular were great admirers of the Murillo paintings, even Queen Victoria considered his paintings “beautiful” and “exquisite”. 

This interesting small free exhibition is part of a National Gallery attempt to bring together either a single painting or a small number of paintings to highlight perhaps lesser known aspects of an artist’s work. Murillo: The Self Portraits is a rare opportunity of viewing a number of portraits from one of the most famous painters of the Spanish Golden Age.

Video Review available here

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information, visit the National Gallery website here

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