Painting of the Spanish Golden Age
(Wallace Collection, London, until 12 May 2013)
Fresh from Dulwich on Sunday afternoon, I headed up to the Wallace Collection for the second instalment of my Murillo adventure. Here the exhibition is very small and, as at Dulwich, precisely focused. With one exception, it contains only pictures that were bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-1870) in the mid-19th century and form part of the Collection. It therefore acts not only as an introduction to Murillo, but it shows us Murillo through the eyes of the 19th century, when Lord Hertford was buying his pictures at auction.
While at Dulwich we saw the result of a planned decorative scheme executed by Murillo for a specific location, here at the Wallace Collection we see a collection of Murillo’s work assembled to suit the taste of one particular collector. Lord Hertford was fairly typical of his age – though with more money and, arguably, better taste – in that he was attracted by pictures which made him happy. He wasn’t interested in dark, complex or troubling paintings – as you can judge from the rest of his splendid collection, with its effusive, golden Bouchers and dreamy Watteau fêtes champêtres. In fact, he explicitly told his agent that he liked ‘pleasing pictures’, and so it’s no wonder that he was attracted by Murillo, who had been hailed in the 1840s by the art writer Anna Jameson as the exemplar of the religious painter.
The first room of the exhibition focuses on those pictures which satisfied Lord Hertford’s criteria as ‘pleasing’, including some which he bought as Murillo but are no longer accepted (like The Virgin and Child with St Rose of Viterbo, which is strikingly wooden). Some of the paintings in this room are dazzling, however, and my favourite picture in the exhibition – indeed, possibly my favourite Murillo of the day – was the exquisite Marriage of the Virgin. It looks as if it should be painted on a grander scale than it is: at a mere 76 x 56 cm., it’s the perfect size for domestic worship. And it’s beautiful.
Here Murillo’s familiar earthy tones of faded crimson and ochre are enlivened by blocks of green, rich blue and the radiant white of the Virgin’s gown. The lively brushwork gives the picture a sense of movement that’s accentuated by the wedding guests on either side, who are caught in the middle of turning to their companions. And, although the Virgin and Joseph are both idealised (note that Joseph is young here, as he often is in the Spanish tradition), it doesn’t become saccharine. I couldn’t help wondering about Murillo’s influences here: he must have been thinking about Raphael’s treatment of the subject (and Perugino’s too?). I also find my eyes continually drawn back to the woman on the left in yellow and green. She looks like she’s stepped straight out of a Velazquez painting – one of his Sibyls, perhaps. For the first time in the day, I simply stood and wallowed in the beauty of a picture. This is yet more proof that there’s much more to Murillo than I’ve assumed over the years – a greater range, and a greater ability.
That range expands further in the second room, where a second collector casts his shadow over Lord Hertford’s pictures. Four of the exhibits – including the one loan from outside the Wallace Collection – come from the collection of the Genoese merchant Giovanni Bielato, who bequeathed seven of his Murillo paintings to the Capuchin Church in Genoa after his death in 1674. Removed from the church during the confusion of the French occupation and (rather shamefully) bought by English dealers, four of these paintings found their way into English hands. Three of them are now in the Wallace Collection; and the fourth, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, is at Wrotham Park. Its loan to the exhibition means that this is the first time we can see all four together for more than 200 years, which is rather wonderful. I can’t immediately see any iconographical link between the four pictures here, which suggests that Bielato bought them individually rather than as an intended group – The Rest on the Flight into Egypt balanced by St Thomas of Villanueva, and The Adoration of the Shepherds by Joseph and his Brothers.
These last two pictures were the most striking in the room; there’s no doubt of it. The Adoration is a painting that always makes me stop for a moment when I pop into the Wallace Collection just to have a wander. Like The Marriage of the Virgin, it is one of those happy moments in which all of Murillo’s elements come together in a synthesis that’s just as pleasing to the modern eye as it was to his contemporaries. The dark background and muddy, earthy tones of the shepherds’ clothing contrast with the golden illumination given off by the Child, which ties the scene together through the circle of softly-lit faces around the crib. I particularly liked the face of the old shepherd who kneels closest to the Virgin, in which tenderness and wonder jostle with complete bafflement. The animals are wonderfully painted – the sheep, of course, but also the cow which turns its head towards us as if we’ve distracted it. However, Murillo can’t quite help himself – at the top of the painting, completely divorced from everything, are a couple of fat cherubs who seem to have tumbled out of some other, much more sentimental painting – but overall, this is definitely one of the good ones.
Less successful as a whole, but much more interesting as an example of what Murillo could do, is Joseph and his Brothers. The catalogue notes that Lord Hertford had qualms about this – it didn’t quite live up to his ‘pleasing’ criteria – but he was eventually persuaded to buy it nevertheless. It was completely new to me – I can only imagine that, because it looks so unlike a Murillo, I’ve never properly registered it as such. Here all sweetness has been dispensed with and there’s some real grit behind Murillo’s brush. Joseph is not some piously simpering little saint, but a struggling, scowling, outraged adolescent fighting to be free of his captors. His brothers react with a mixture of placid resolve, consternation and weary indifference (‘Not my problem,’ one seems to say, raising his eyebrows as he turns away with a dismissive gesture). As I said, it doesn’t quite gel as a great picture, but I was fascinated by it because it shows Murillo doing something completely different from anything else I’ve seen by him.
This isn’t a large exhibition – in fact, there’s a grand total of twelve exhibits – but it’s the perfect complement to the Dulwich show and (being the Wallace Collection) it’s also totally free. So, if you happen to be passing by Manchester Square in the next few days, catch it while you can. Taking the two exhibitions together, I think I’ve taken a first step along the road to really appreciating Murillo – these shows have introduced me to paintings in which the brushwork is lively and free, and where he treats still lives and animals with stunning naturalism; I can clearly see the debts that he owes not only to Rubens and Titian and the great artists of earlier generations, but also to his immediate predecessor, Velazquez. And it’s been another very welcome little piece building up my understanding of Spanish painting as a whole. Definitely a worthwhile use of a Bank Holiday Sunday!