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Spanish master Bartolome Murillo at the Kimbell

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter.

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: Throughout most of his 65 years, Seville native Bartolome Esteban Murillo was among Spain's most famous and revered painters. Commissioned by the church and wealthy individuals, he produced hundreds of both religious and so-called genre paintings, or street scenes. They endeared him to collectors throughout Europe, making Murillo the first Spanish painter to gain such renown across the continent.

Suzanne-Stratton Pruitt, art historian, author of exhibition catalog: For the public in general, Murillo remained hands-down the favorite right through the 19th century.

Zeeble: Art historian Suzanne-Stratton Pruitt put together the catalog for this show, "Murillo: Paintings from American Collections." She says by the end of the Victorian era in the early 20th century, Murillo's works were considered too maudlin and sugary.

Pruitt: I think they weren't looking at Murillo. I think they were assuming that if the romantic, late Victorian 19th century loved Murillo, he must be sentimental and sweet, and therefore to be tossed out with all the Victorian artists who were sweet and sentimental.

Zeeble: Pruitt says it didn't help that many paintings thought to be by Murillo were sappy copies spun off by 18th and 19th century Murillo wannabes. She also says the works by the master's hand are far more robust?his figures more lifelike and natural. The power of one painting in this show, The Virgin and Child, impressed American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne when he saw it in England more than 150 years ago.

Pruitt: He said it's not just another mother and child. He said, "I've seen so many of those in these galleries. She seems to turn to him with an awful worship as to her creator." And I realized that in the 19th century, awful meant full of awe. In fact, that's the way she's looking at him, not just lovingly, but amazed she has this creature on her lap.

Zeeble: The Kimbell Museum's director, Timothy Potts, admires Murillo's skills in humanizing his religious paintings. Some considered that controversial. Potts notes the ragged, dirty nature of the young man in a painting depicting the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Timothy Potts, director, Kimbell Art Museum: There were those who thought a picture of a religious subject needed to be an image elevated and sublime?and should not be sullied in the way everyday life is. There were those who wanted to keep the sacred and profane separate. Murillo, perhaps more than any other painter, brought those two modes together and allowed them to overlap.

Zeeble: Potts also admires Murillo's genre paintings that seem to tell stories. He points to the Kimbell's own Murillo, "Four Figures On A Step," or the National Gallery's "Two Women At A Window." Both reveal snickering, frowning, or smiling faces.

Potts: Here they've got quizzical looks, or are staring at you as if you're doing something odd, or as if it's some passing event and made them throw open the window and lean out and gaze. There's something going on in our space, which is making them behave the way they are. That's unique.

Zeeble: "Four Figures On A Step" was purchased by the Kimbell at the urging of Bill Jordan, who used to work for the museum. He also helped SMU's Meadows Museum build its famous Spanish collection. A writer of one of the catalog's essays, Jordan says when Murillo's market value was depressed because of public disfavor, North Texas institutions purchased some paintings like the "Flocks of Laban," which is in this show.

Bill Jordan, art historian, Spanish art expert: In fact, I bought that painting for the Meadows Museum in 1967 for $280,000. Today, the picture would be worth many millions of dollars.

Zeeble: The Murillo show runs through June 16th at the Kimbell, before moving to Los Angeles. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.