Murillo and Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship at Dulwich Picture Gallery

By Ben Miller | 11 February 2013

Exhibition review: Murillo and Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until May 19 2013

An image of an oil painting of a biblical mother figure surrounded by angels in the sky
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Immaculate conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes (1660-65). Oil on canvas© Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Since 1811, when it was founded by Sir Francis Bourgeois as a place for the public to see old master paintings, Dulwich Picture Gallery has been the landscaped, elegant setting in which to savour the magnificent potential of brushstrokes.

If describing it as a place to worship great art at might seem overbearing, there’s certainly something of the sacred about this corner of south London. And in an overhaul with a very intentional touch of the hallowed, its central enfilade has now been re-imagined as a section of a Spanish church.

An image of an oil painting of the biblical Christ being anointed at a river by a baptist
The Baptism of Christ (1667-68). Oil on canvas© Chapel of San Antonio, Catedral de Sevilla
The reason for this transformation is to recreate the feel of a cathedral in Seville, where the 17th century canon, Don Justino de Neve, was a patron of the Spanish Baroque painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Murillo is perhaps best known for his depictions of the street life of Spain at the time, but Neve’s prolific commissions provided a hefty cross-section of the artist’s career.

More than 30 of the resulting works are here, although it’s impossible, initially, to avoid being consumed by three huge lunettes, hung at height under shadows, the most valuable of which is The Immaculate Conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes, begun in 1660.

A centrepiece to the temple’s altar during the celebratory festivities surrounding the reopening of Santa Maria La Blanca in 1665, it was acquired for the Hospital of the Venerable Sacerdotes before being seized during the Peninsular War.

In response to its conceptual popularity at the time, Murillo produced 24 versions of it, and this one captures the dynamism of the Virgin’s upward movement, removing the traditional palm tree.

Symbolism abounds in these vast works. One, made for the hospital refectory, was intended to inspire priests to support clerics and the poor through a vision of the virgin and child distributing bread.

An image of a painting of an 18th century man in a black cloak at a table with a dog
Don Justino de Neve (1665). Oil on canvas© The National Gallery, London
In another, Christ is drooped, his leg trailing in a river as he is anointed with a cup the size of a seashell by the robed John the Baptist, carrying a rake-like cross as seagulls soar overhead against a background of thick moss.

Foreboding mountains are the backdrop for The Penitent Saint Peter, weeping as he recalls betraying Christ. His foot is daubed in mud, his books are left asunder, and a key is draped mournfully over a rock in a canvass which was also somewhat ill-fated, standing on one of the altars until it was removed by invaders during the Napoleonic conflict.

Paintings of street children soon add fabled scenes to these biblical barnstormers. But for the viewer, the final room is the one promising a real revelation. One of the cherubic works, Invitation to a Game of Argolla, had originally contrasted the sulky demeanour of a boy chewing bread with the grinning intent of the boy he wants to persuade to forego his chores in favour of a game of croquet.

We are shown how it was turned into a mass-produced wallpaper, hung in the homes of the middle classes and exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Samuel Woodforde made three studies of it, and it was even approximated into a Flemish tapestry.

A nearby Gainsborough work, The Cottage Girl, emphasises Murillo’s influence, owing much to his depictions of beggar boys in its view of a doleful, dog-clutching child posing on a sweeping hillside.

Murillo’s peers would have yearned to see the artist’s thought patterns, which is exactly what we are treated to in a series of utterly intriguing x-radiographs.

They offer a startling image hidden beneath the paint surface of Spring as a Flower Girl: when the x-radiograph is turned sideways, the bottom half of Immaculate Conception can be seen, the shape of the virgin’s white mantle visible above a crescent moon.

The three angels next to her, clasping a palm leaf, roses and lilies, can then be seen fully realised, in colour, in Immaculate Conception of El Escorial, the 1665 painting to the right.

Sometimes Murillo simply changed his mind. A ceramic jug, in the foreground of Three Boys, has been moved, and an extra basket, appearing suddenly on further inspection, was ultimately left out.

The dynamics turn smiles into smirking mockery and tomfoolery into defiance. And Stephanoff’s Viewing at Dulwich Picture Gallery is a ghost of bygone gallery wanderers themselves, showing how the walls were once packed with master paintings at jaunty angles amid rooms festooned with chairs, tables and the easal of one of the artists who might have travelled to Britain’s first picture gallery.

There are several subplots to enjoy here: a self-portrait shows Murillo’s hand reaching supernaturally out of a frame in a kind of portrait of a painting, and the relationship between artist and patron is drawn out in the same room of Neve’s private collection, where a grand Murillo portrait shows him temporarily distracted from prayer, a dog in a red bow waiting by his side.

Those lunettes tower above the entrance to the chamber, and their sheer scale and grandeur should leave even the most dyed-in-the-canvas cynic at least mildly impressed. Failing that, the forensic insights into a long-gone Spaniard’s creative process reveal enough ghostly marks to send shivers down the spine and a rush of curiosity to the head.

  • Open 10am-5pm (11am-5pm Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday). Tickets £11/£6 (free for under-18s). Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @dulwichgallery.

More pictures:

An image of a 17th century oil painting of three children sitting on top of a hill
Three Boys (circa 1670). Oil on canvas© By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
An image of an oil painting of a biblical mother figure and her winged angels handing out bread
The Infant Saint John the Baptist with the Lamb (1660-65). Oil on canvas© Szépmuvészeti Museum, Budapest
An image of an oil painting of a young 17th century girl holding flowers sitting down
'Spring' (?) as a Flower Girl 91665-70). Oil on canvas© By permission of The Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
An image of an oil painting of a 17th century man portrayed within a circular mirror
Self-portrait (circa 1668-70).Oil on canvas© The National Gallery, London
An image of an oil painting of a 17th century baptist sitting on a hill praying fearfully
The Penitent Saint Peter (circa 1670). Oil on canvas© Private Collection
An image of an oil painting of two children sitting on a hill. One is looking up, the other is chewing bread
Invitation to a Game of Argolla (1665-70). Oil on canvas© By Permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
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