Installation view of Murillo: The Self-Portraits at The Frick Collection (photo by Michael Bodycomb, courtesy Frick Collection)

400 years ago on December 31, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born. To celebrate the famed Sevillian artist’s legacy (he is primarily known for his religious paintings), the Frick Collection and London’s National Gallery have joined forces to present an exhibition focused on Murillo’s portraits. Currently showing at the Frick (before hopping the pond to the National Gallery in February), Murillo: The Self-Portraits focuses its attention around the artist’s only two known self-portraits, together for the first time since 1709, when they were still part of his son Caspar’s art collection.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Self-Portrait” (ca 1650−55), oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 30 1/2 in, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Clay Frick II, 2014 (© The Frick Collection)

Separated by about a decade, Murillo’s self-portraits serve as bookends to the exhibition. The earlier work, from 1650–55, depicts the self-confidence of the artist in his 30s, while in the later painting, from 1670, a world-weary and recently widowed Murillo paints himself at the behest of his four teenage children. The earlier portrait, the first Spanish painting acquired by Henry Clay Frick in 1904, before his collection expanded into El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, remained in the Frick family for over 100 years. It was donated to the Frick Collection only a few years ago, in 2014. The later portrait has been in the National Gallery’s collection since 1953.

The show at the Frick is divided into two facing basement galleries (wallpapered in a regal purple for the occasion), with the two self-portraits hanging prominently, one in each gallery, on opposite walls facing the doorways. Each is surrounded by other similar Murillo portraits, as well as prints copied after the self-portraits, helping disseminate the artist’s image across Europe. In the center of the room lie some of the original books that contained these prints.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Self-Portrait” (ca 1670), oil on canvas, 48 1/16 × 42 1/8 in, the National Gallery, London; bought, 1953 (© The National Gallery, London)

The earlier self-portrait is flanked by two paintings of noblemen: Juan Arias de Saavedra, a senior minister of the Holy Inquisition in Seville, and historian Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga. “Juan Arias de Saavedra” (1650), Murillo’s earliest known portrait, is on public view for the first time, while “Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga” (c. 1655), long assumed to be a copy, was discovered as an original Murillo painting just last month, and hurriedly added to the Frick exhibition two weeks after it opened. Across the hall, in the gallery with the older Murillo, hangs a portrait of merchant and friend of the artist “Nicolás Omazur”(1672) holding a human skull, as well as two paintings of commoners, “Two Women at a Window” (ca. 1655–60)
 and “A Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill” (ca. 1675).

There’s an unusual commonality in many of Murillo’s portraits: his use of a “fictive frame,” or painting a frame into the painting itself. The effect becomes ever more pronounced in his 1670 self-portrait, with the artist’s hand grasping the frame into which he’s painted. And even in “Two Women at a Window,” the figures look out their window frame as if out of the painting itself.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Two Women at a Window” (ca 1655–60), oil on canvas, 49 1/4 × 41 1/8 in, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Widener Collection (courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Murillo: The Self-Portraits is a fascinating look into Murillo’s portraiture as well as the influence of his secular works across Europe, particularly in Britain, where he was one of the 19th century’s most popular artists. When London’s National Gallery acquired “A Peasant Boy Leaning in a Sill” in 1826, it was the first Spanish painting to enter the museum’s collection, opening the doors to the likes of El Greco and Goya. Even a few hundred years later, we can still appreciate the unique relationships between the painter, the subject, and the viewer created by fictive frames and windowsills. I only wish the Frick had made room for the exhibition in one of its elaborate upstairs galleries. For grandeur, I suppose the purple walls will have to do.

Murillo: The Self-Portraits continues at The Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 4. The exhibition travels to The National Gallery, London, February 28–May 21, 2018.

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Elena Goukassian

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Originally from Bulgaria, she grew up in Washington state and lived in Washington, DC before moving to New York in 2017. Her writing has also appeared...