The Beggar Boy by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The Beggar Boy by Murillo (c.1650)

On December 31st the painting of the day was The Beggar known as the Club-foot by Ribera.  It was a painting of a smiling boy, despite his physical disability, on his way to town to beg for food.  Today’s painting is also of a beggar but in this work of art we are not treated to the sight of a happy child.    My Daily Art Display offering today is The Beggar Boy by the Spanish Baroque Bartholomé Esteban Murillo, the Spanish Baroque painter who was born in Seville in 1616.

Murillo came from a very large family, the youngest of fourteen children.  His father was both a barber and surgeon.  His parents died when he was young and he went to live with a distant relative and artist, Juan del Castillo who started Murillo’s artistic education.  He stayed with Castillo until 1639 when his mentor had to move to Cadiz.  Now Murillo, aged twenty two, had to fend for himself and scraped a living by selling some of his paintings.  In 1643 he travelled to Madrid where he met Velazquez who was also from Seville and had now become a master of his craft.  He took pity on Murillo and let him lodge in his house.  He stayed in Madrid for two years before returning to Seville.  In 1648, at the age of thirty one, Murillo married a wealthy lady of rank, Doña Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayor.   Murillo died as he lived, a humble, pious and brave man, in 1682,  leaving a son and daughter, his wife having died before him. 

Murillo has always been one of the most popular painters.  His works show great technical attainment and a strong feeling for ordinary nature and for truthful or sentimental expression without lofty beauty.  He was the last pre-eminent painter of Seville, a prolific worker hardly leaving his painting-room save for his devotions in church.  His works of art achieved high prices and made him a great fortune.  Probably best known for his religious works but produced a large number of paintings depicting contemporary people, mainly women and children.  His realist style when painting those struggling with poverty, such as beggars, street urchins and flower girls gives one a good insight of life in those days for those who were impoverished.

Today’s painting The Beggar Boy, painted circa 1650 and which now hangs in the Louvre, shows a bare-footed young boy sitting, lit up by sunlight streaming in through an opening in the thick walls of the building.  He, dressed in ragged clothes and is slumped on the stone floor of the darkened room with a sad downcast expression.  His feet are bare and the soles are blackened and bloodied.  There is no hint of happiness in his expression, which is in complete contrast to Ribera’s Boy with Club-Foot.  We can only imagine what is going through his mind.  Desperation and sadness with his lot in life must be uppermost in his thoughts.  The feeling of dejection and hopelessness pervades his being and the future for him looks bleak indeed.

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The Beggar known as the Club-foot by Jusepe de Ribera

The Beggar known as the Club-foot by Jusepe de Ribera (1642)

Jusepe de Ribera, the Spanish painter, also known as José de Ribera was born in Játiba near Valencia in 1591.  After visiting Parma, Padua and Rome, he settled down in Naples in 1616, which in those days was under the control of Spain.  It was here that he spent most of his career.  His developed style of painting owed a lot to the influence of the Italian artist of the day, Caravaggio.  Ribera became a painter to the Spanish Viceroy who was later succeeded by the Duke of Monterey, a person who secured many commissions for him from the Augustine Monastery in Salamanca.  Ribera remained in Naples where he died in 1652.

His painting Boy with a Club Foot, which can be found in the Louvre, Paris, is today’s featured work of Art and was completed in 1642 and highlights his more mature style both through its composition and also because of the subject.  It is believed a Flemish art dealer had commissioned this painting as the theme of beggars in paintings such as The Beggars by Bruegel the Elder and Murillo’s The Young Beggars had become very popular.

The painting, which is typical of his more mature style, shows a disabled Neapolitan beggar, probably a dwarf  (originally the painting was entitled The Dwarf) with a club foot, clutching a piece of paper with the words “ Da mihi elimosinam propter amorem dei” which translates to “For the love of God give me alms”.  The reason for this piece of paper to be held by the young beggar could be that it was his licence to allow him to beg, which was mandatory in Naples in those days.   It also could be, as some have interpreted, that he, the boy, suffered from speech problems and was unable to voice his request for help.  It is interesting to see how Ribera has portrayed the beggar, not as a grovelling child, looking downcast and miserable in some dark and grubby alleyway.  Here before us is not a down-trodden child but a youngster, standing upright, with a cheeky smiling face and a look of defiant pride as he almost gaily carries his crutch over his shoulder, set against a light and tranquil background. The boy is shown close up and we are looking at him from a low viewpoint which gives the subject a sort of monumentality and self-esteem which would normally have been afforded to a noble person.

Las Meninas, after Velazquez by Pablo Picasso

Las Meninas, after Velazquez by Pablo Picasso (1957)

The last art gallery I visited when I was in Vienna earlier this month was the Albertina.  They were advertising two main exhibitions, one of Michaelangelo sketches and one of works by Picasso.  I made this gallery my last port of call and in a way I was pleased with that decision.  I liked the Michaelangelo sketches but, sad to say, I am not a lover of Picasso’s works of art.  As an art lover, I know that is a terrible thing to admit to, but one knows what one likes and vice versa.  Why should I pretend that I love his work when in fact I can find little to like about it.

So why am I making it one of My Daily Art Display offerings?  The reason is that yesterday I offered you Las Meninas by Velazquez and today I am offering you one of Picasso’s many interpretation of that work of art which I saw at the Albertina and I will let you judge which version pleases you the most.

Pablo Picasso was fourteen years of age when he first saw Velazquez’s painting of the two Maids of Honour and the Indfanta entitled Las Meninas and this was just a few months after his seven-year old blonde-haired sister had died from diphtheria.    Two years later, at the age of sixteen, Picasso produced his first sketch relating to the Las Meninas characters.   In all, from the time of his adolescence, Picasso, who adored the Velazquez painting,  devoted much time to analysing and interpreting this work of art.

Today’s painting for My Daily Art Display is Las Meninas after Velazquez by Pablo Picasso and was completed in 1957.  It is one of his fifty eight interpretations of Velazquez’s original painting of the same name.  The main characters in Picasso’s work remain the same as in the original Velazquez painting, namely, Velázquez;  Doña Agustina de Sarmiento and Doña Isabel de Velasco the two maids of honour (las Meninas) , Doña Margarita, the Infanta; the two dwarves, Maribárbola and Nicolasito Pertusato, and he even reproduces the shape of the dog lying on the floor.  In the background, he also keeps the looking-glass, in which one can see two images which represent the king and queen of Spain.

So it is up to you to look at today’s and yesterday’s versions of Las Meninas and decide for yourself which you prefer.

Las Meninas by Velazquez

Las Meninas by Velazquez (1656)

My Daily Art Display painting of the day is Las Meninas (the Maids of Honour), an oil on canvas work by Diego Rodriquez de Silva y Velázquez.  He completed this painting in 1656 just four years before his death at the age of sixty one.  It is often referred to as “a painting about a painting”.

 

In the painting, the setting of which is believed to be Velazquez’s high-ceilinged studio in Madrid’s Alcázar palace, the painter has just stepped out from behind the great canvas.  At the centre of the painting is the five-year old princess Doña Margarita Maria of Austria, simply known as the Infanta, with her two maids of honour (las Meninas), Doña Maria Agustina on the left and Doña Isabel Velasco on the right.  These girls, who were brought up to serve at court and come from aristocratic families, look respectfully at the Infanta.   Various courtiers stand in the background.  José Nieto the Queen’s Chamberlain stands in the doorway.  Doña Marcela de Ulloa and a Guarda Damas (male escort for ladies of the court) stand directly behind the two Maids of Honour.   In the foreground with his foot on the dog is the dwarf Nicolasito Pertusato and to the left of him is a second dwarf,  Maribárbola

 

  So who is the subject of the painting?  Although the two maids of honour, are focusing their attention on the Infanta, almost all the other characters are looking out of the surface of the painting.  So who are they looking at?    If one looks carefully at the mirror on the rear wall, one can make out the fading reflection of the Infanta’s parents, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana.  Are they whom everybody is looking at?  Does this mean the king and queen were spectators watching the artist at work or in some way were they actually the subject of the painting on Velazquez’s easel?  One interpretation of this faded reflection in the mirror is that Velazquez’s drew it thus in the belief that the fall of the Spanish empire would begin, and its power fade, once the king had died

 

The size of this painting, over ten feet tall and nine feet across place it in the noble convention of portraiture of the time and an exceptional example of the European baroque period.   Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, wrote of the painting in his book Great Works of Art of Western Civilisation:

 

“… [it could] well be the most thrilling portrayal of humanity ever created, a combination of portrait, self portrait, illusion, reality, dream, romance, likeness and propaganda ever painted…”

 

Frederic Taubes, American artist and author, in his book The Illustrated Guide to Great Art in Europe, For Amateur Artists wrote of the painting:

 

“….the overall mastery in the use of pictorial means, the fact that it (Las Meninas) stands at the highest level any artist could attain, would not alone establish the painting in the galaxy of masterpieces. It is rather the imponderable that raises the realistic representation to the sphere of the transcendental….”