Wednesday, March 26, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - The Young Beggar (Murillo)

One of the things I love about the old Spanish Masters is when they would paint people who had no power at all.  They painted the common person, and sometimes even the poorest of the poor.  It was usually done early on in their career before they had powerful people commissioning them to paint for them.  We see that with Velázquez, and we can see it here with Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's piece called "The Young Beggar." 
I remember this painting being one of the first of Murillo's that I'd ever seen, and as you can imagine I immediately became a fan of his work.  That usually happens when the first painting I see of any artist is this powerful.  I remember thinking how amazing the realism of this piece was, and my eyes were particularly drawn to the young boy's feet.  I had never seen feet drawn or painted so beautifully in any other painting before.  And the way in which Murillo has put the dirt on the bottom of the boy's feet, and painted them with the foreshortened perspective, makes them so tangible.  You could just look at them and imagine how crusted the dirt is, and how calloused the skin is.  I also love the way that Murillo depicted the boy's head as he looks down with almost a shamed or depressed look on his face, and revealing to us the top of his head where surely his malnourishment has caused patches of hair to fall out.
Again, we see the wonderful use of tenebrism, or the interplay of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) which also made the Spanish painters famous.  Murillo excelled at it, and we can see the way he exploited such great, Baroque-style lighting in his paintings.  This is not the only time Murillo painted this sort of genre scene.  Soon after this one, he painted a similar work, a bit more light-hearted, of two beggar boys eating grapes and a melon.  And again, Murillo showed off his excellent skill of tenebrism, as well as his skill for painting dirty feet.  Pretty soon, I started thinking of Murillo as being the painter of dirty feet, although he was certainly much more than that.  One of Murillo's most painted subjects came to be the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.  He painted several versions of it, and they were all quite similar.  I am blessed to have one of them close to home at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.  But as popular as that subject was for him, Murillo's painting of this young beggar is still, in my opinion, one of his great masterpieces.

The Young Beggar
oil on canvas
c. 1645

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