Sunday, November 19, 2017

Murillo: The Self Portraits

We had a rare opportunity, since we are so seldom in New York, to attend a press opening where the curator, Xavier Salamon, Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick talked to us about the exhibition, “Murillo: The Self Portraits”.  It is the only show in the U.S. commemorating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth.  Salamon co-curated the show with Letizia Treves, curator at the National Gallery in London where a larger version of the show will be in the spring of next year. 

Salamon is an excellent speaker and could make the exhibition absolutely clear to us.  Bartolom√© Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), a baroque Spanish artist spent his life in Seville. Artists often paint many self-portraits because that is whom they are most familiar with and is always available.  Murillo, however, is known to have only painted two; in fact the artist only painted fifteen  portraits and the Frick is showing five of them including the two  self-portraits.  One belongs to the National Gallery in London and the other, which Henry Clay Frick, himself, bought in 1904 and stayed in the family, was given by Mrs. Clay Frick II in 2014.  

It is said that on Facebook we project our image as we would like people to think of us.  There we can use images and words but the artists of yore had to do it with paint and brush or chisel and marble.  In Murillo’s first self-portrait painted between 1650 and 1655 now in the Frick Collection, the artist is surrounded by a trompe l’oeil frame, a hollowed-out stone block, chipped away and eroded by time. The block, in turn, is propped up on a stone ledge.  This fictive frame is unique in concept and not found on any other work by the artist or his followers.  It also shows the artist with some gravitas even at the relatively young age of about 35.

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

Murillo’s second and last self-portrait, lent by London’s National Gallery, was done in 1670.  He wrote below it in Latin as if it were the label for the painting, (translated) “Bartolom√© Murillo painted himself to fulfill the wishes and prayers of his children”.  Interesting that he felt he needed an excuse to do another picture of himself or maybe since their mother had died some years before they did not want him to die without a rendering by which to remember him.  Murillo’s wife had given him 9 children 5 of whom had died: that does given one a heavy burden and the necessity of coming face to face with mortality.  My mother asked my father to have his portrait done by fourth generation photographer, Louis Fabian Bachrach. He complied but I don’t remember her ever putting it up, he would not have wanted it!

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

As we know politicians are often elected on the basis of their name and image recognition so is with artists as well.  It is clear that Murillo was thought of as important in his own time for shortly after his death engravings of his early self-portrait started to be made and disseminated.  A sampling of these has been included in the show .

One painting that I cannot resist illustrating is the artist’s “Two Women at a Window” circa 1655-1660 from the National Gallery in Washington D.C.  Salamon explained that women would not have done this at the time unless they were looking for business and they were most probably prostitutes presenting themselves to the gentlemen walking by.  His point of including it was Murillo’s highly original use of trompe l’oeil: a woman leaning out from the stone ledge of a window, comparing this with the artist himself grasping the faux stone fame around his image.


Photo by Michael Bodycomb

The show is an interesting insight into an artist who was famous in the 18th and 19th centuries but who fell from favor in more recent times. It is another example of the Frick Collection’s small, very focused exhibitions, which are often the ones you can learn the most from.

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