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Murillo: The Self Portraits Exhibition Review - The National Gallery

28th February – 21st May 2018



In an exhibition which marks the 400th anniversary of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s birth, The National Gallery reunites the artist’s only known self portraits for the first time in over three hundred years. They were last seen together in the private collection of Murillo’s son, Gaspar. The modest, single room exhibition orients itself around the two portraits, contrasting Murillo’s earlier and later styles. The room chronicles Murillo’s maturation as both a man and a painter by showcasing his subtle and intimate works, rather than his more famous religious paintings.

The exhibition’s dim lighting allows for a heightened appreciation of the chiaroscuro of Murillo’s palette. The atmosphere achieved is somber and meditative—sepulchral even. The penetrative gazes of Murillo’s portraits draw attention from the gloom, posing questions of legacy and mortality.

On the left side of the room are three portraits Murillo painted in the 1650s of young men, all formally precise in style, and subtly idealised. Two of the portraits present their subjects with interior stone frames adorned by putti. This feature demonstrates the influence Murillo drew from classical Rome, and from his Northern European contemporaries.

In his earlier self portrait, Murillo presents himself as a confident young man—debonair and intelligent, challenging the viewer to meet his eyes. Both the artist and the portrait are a product of their time; life expectancies were short and much of seventeenth century European art reflected a societal obsession with mortality. This early portrait suggests a resulting preoccupation with legacy. The young and ambitious Murillo sought to project this image of himself into the future.

This youthful action against the impermanence of existence provides a stark contrast to Murillo’s later attempts to capture fleeting moments of beauty and emotion. His paintings of street urchins and young women—found on the right side of the exhibition—do not concern themselves with legacy or presentation. Rather, they preserve precious moments which would otherwise dissipate in seconds.

The maturation of Murillo’s view of impermanence and mortality is seen clearly in his later portrait. In this portrait, painted approximately twenty years after his earlier one, Murillo appears as a more aged and revered figure who has discarded the idea of asserting his existence through portraiture. Rather, he seeks to endure by drawing a connection between himself and his viewer. He emerges from his portrait with his hand resting upon his stone frame. He reaches outward, and with the same quiet dignity, he forges for himself a position among the foremost artists of the Spanish Golden Age.

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