The art of storytelling in Andalusian Baroque painting arrives at the Prado Museum

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The art of storytelling in Andalusian Baroque painting arrives at the Prado Museum
Rebecca and Eliezer Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) Oil on canvas, 108 x 151.5 cm c. 1660 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado.

MADRID.- Curated by Javier Portús, Chief Curator of Spanish Painting (up to 1800) at the Museo Nacional del Prado, and with the collaboration of the Comunidad de Madrid, the exhibition is devoted to a specific pictorial typology produced in the 17th century by some of the leading Andalusian Baroque painters.

During the central decades of the 17th century a type of painting was produced in Andalusia that was notably representative of both the high levels achieved by the principal painters of the region and the expectations and tastes of one of the most active sectors of their clientele. These are works structured as series, most of medium size and commissioned by private individuals for domestic interiors or private oratories. They depict a “story” taken from the Bible or the hagiographies, either in the form of an individual’s life story recounted in greater or lesser detail, or the different stages within one biographical episode. The format allowed artists to display not only their use of compositional devices but also their skills as narrators of sequential episodes.

The content of the series and the way the artists chose to depict the subjects often reflect the contemporary world of the individuals who commissioned them, their codes and aspirations, while also providing us with an insight into part of their material culture.

With the aim of learning more about these works and structured around the series of six, recently restored canvases of Murillo’s “Prodigal Son” series, generously loaned by the National Gallery of Dublin, the exhibition includes the four paintings in the collection of the Prado associated with that series by Murillo; the “Story of Joseph” series by Antonio del Castillo, which has survived complete; and most of the paintings from the series on “The Life of Saint Ambrose” by Juan de Valdés Leal. A comparison between these works by three of the leading names in Andalusian Baroque painting reveals both affinities and differences with regard to technique, style and approach to narrative.

The exhibition includes a further section of individual paintings which originally belonged to series of this type, depicting scenes of banquets and the meeting beside the well as spaces of social encounter. They reveal how works of this type contain not just an important narrative content but also formulas associated with other genres, such as landscape, genre painting and still life.

Through these paintings, which are essentially narrative in nature and require careful, slow and sequential observation, viewers are encouraged to adopt an approach to Old Master painting which differs from the one habitually employed today and is closer to the gaze that existed at the time the works were created and among those for whom they were intended.

Murillo’s “The Prodigal Son” and the art of narrative in Andalusian Baroque painting

The four central decades of the 17th century saw the emergence in Andalusia of a type of painting that is particularly representative of both the exceptional creative level achieved by the region’s leading painters and of the expectations and tastes of one of the most active sectors of their clientele. These are works organised in series, usually of medium size and commissioned by private individuals for domestic interiors and oratories. A number of these series recount the progress of a “story”, either the life history of a character with varying degrees of completeness or the events within a specific episode in their life. The result is to make them of enormous interest for understanding the compositional devices employed by their creators and their ability to narrate successive episodes. Among the artists who produced series of this type were Bartolomé E. Murillo, Antonio del Castillo, Juan de Valdés Leal and Alonso Cano; four of the leading figures of Andalusian Baroque painting. The present exhibition is intended to introduce this context, taking three of these series as its principal points of reference: the one on the Parable of the Prodigal Son by Murillo, the series on Joseph in Egypt by Antonio del Castillo, and the one on the Life of Saint Ambrose by Valdés Leal. A fourth section includes works from other series in order to show how they were important vehicles for the depiction of landscape, the emotions and daily life.

The story of Joseph in Egypt

Narrated in the book of Genesis, Joseph’s life is filled with storybook episodes and was also considered to prefigure that of Christ, for which reasons it aroused the interest of intellectuals, artists and the public. The fact that Joseph was his father’s favourite son provoked the envy of most of his brothers, who decided to kill him. Only the intervention of one of them, Reuben, prevented this and he was finally handed over to some merchants who in turn sold him to Potiphar, an official of the pharaoh. Joseph resisted Potiphar’s wife’s attempts to seduce him, which demonstrated his self-restraint but led to his imprisonment. The prophetic gifts he revealed there led the pharaoh to command him to interpret a troubling dream. Joseph correctly predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven of famine. Due to his powers he was made governor of Egypt, a position in which he proved himself wise, prudent, sagacious, virtuous and able to rise to any difficult situation. He also showed himself to be generous and magnanimous when he pardoned his own brothers who had wanted to murder him.

Aside from its religious content this action-packed story filled with exciting incidents could satisfy any viewer’s desire for armchair adventures.

Antonio del Castillo, The Story of Joseph in Egypt

Antonio del Castillo (Córdoba, 1616-1668) first trained in his native city then in Seville where he encountered the work of Zurbarán. He became one of the most important artists active in his city in the central decades of the 17th century. During his career as a painter Castillo was less dependent on institutional commissions than previous Cordovan artists. Among the characteristics of his approach were his marked interest in drawing (around 190 examples survive) and the importance he placed on landscape. The latter is evident in both his works on paper and his paintings of outdoors scenes, in which the setting is of equal or greater importance than the “story”.

Castillo’s scenes from the life of Joseph, which is one of the series that has established his fame, reveals some of those characteristics. These are works intended for a private client in which the landscape acquires considerable importance. Castillo also achieves a striking balance between narrative and setting, revealing a notable ability to convey emotions and bodily gestures, while refining his narrative technique with the result that the episodes succeed each other in a dynamic, clear and uninterrupted manner.

The parable of the Prodigal Son

The parable of the Prodigal Son is recounted in the Gospel of Saint Luke and is one of the exemplary stories through which key Christian values such as pardon and compassion are transmitted. It is a clear, easily understandable narrative that relates to issues applicable to daily life, such as father-son relationships, the importance of family as a protective framework and the necessity for prudence as a life guide. The importance of this content and its dramatic potential were exploited by the great creative figures of the Baroque. Lope de Vega and José de Valdivielso used it for two religious plays, while one of Rembrandt’s most moving works (Hermitage) shows the moment when the son receives his father’s pardon.

One of the merits of this story is the way it lends itself to such a synthetic summary: a younger son asks his father for his inheritance then leaves home. Far from his native land he squanders his money and is obliged to become a swineherd in order to survive. He thus decides to return home and beg his father for shelter and pardon. His father receives him with great joy, saying “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Bartolomé E. Murillo, The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The story of the Prodigal Son was particularly suitable for Bartolomé E. Murillo (Seville, 1617-1682), an artist notably interested in exploring the emotional potential of painting who depicted the subject in one of his major compositions for the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. Murillo also produced the series of six paintings on display here, each depicting an episode from the parable. Together with the five paintings on the story of Jacob, these medium-format works constitute the principal narrative series created by the artist for a private client. In addition, it is the only group of this type that has remained together in its entirety in one collection. This offers a unique opportunity to appreciate Murillo’s skills as a narrator and the devices he employed to recount a narrative in a sequential manner.

Among all the options that the Gospel account offered him, Murillo opted to depict six key moments through which the progress of the story can be easily followed and the values and religious and moral connotations associated with it identified. The viewer can thus enjoy situations and details that are easily translatable to everyday experience.The series gave rise to four small paintings which are displayed here alongside their respective models.

Preliminary studies or “ricordi”? The case of the Prodigal Son tending the Swine

In addition to the six medium-format paintings that narrate the parable of the Prodigal Son, four more small-format canvases exist which repeat four scenes from the larger series. For many years these were considered to be preliminary studies or works that Murillo used to show his client the appearance which the larger series would have. However, technical study of these smaller works confirms that they derive from the larger ones rather than preceding them.

The process that led to that solution is illustrated here through the example of The Prodigal Son tending the Swine. Firstly, Callot’s print provided Murillo’s starting point when organising his scene. The X-radiograph of the painting in Dublin reveals that he initially devised a much more complex background than the one in the engraving. That background was reduced in a subsequent stage, as the photograph of the painting shows. Both the reduced-scale version in the Prado and its Xradiograph have a background similar to the Dublin painting, indicating that the latter was executed before the Prado canvas, which copies its final state.

The Life of Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose (ca. 340-397) is one of the preeminent figures in the history of the early Christian Church, due above all to his example as an ecclesiastical dignitary who upheld the rights of religious authority over those of secular power, in which sense he established a fundamental precedent. He was also a prolific writer, particularly of sermons. These activities led Ambrose to be considered one of the Fathers of the Latin Church, together with Saints Jerome, Augustine and Gregory.

Of noble birth, Ambrose embarked on an administrative career in the service of the Empire and in the year 370 was appointed governor of Emilia and Liguria, a position he held from Milan. Some years later and following the death of the city’s bishop he was obliged to settle a dispute between the Nicene Church and the Arians over the episcopal succession. Ambrose’s prudence and sagacity in the matter meant that he was ultimately made bishop himself. In this role Ambrose curtailed Arianism, promoted orthodox Christianity and also maintained opposing positions with the imperial rulers on some occasions. He was known for his ascetic life and dedication to pastoral affairs.

Juan de Valdés Leal, The Life of Saint Ambrose

Together with Murillo, Juan de Valdés Leal (Seville, 1622-1690) was the most prestigious and active painter in Seville at the time when he was contracted to paint a series of paintings on the life of Saint Ambrose in 1673. The commission came from the city’s archbishop, Ambrosio Ignacio Spínola y Guzmán, who intended them for his private oratory in the episcopal palace. The series probably comprised seven paintings depicting episodes from the life of Saint Ambrose from his childhood to his death, now divided between different institutions. Particularly important within the group is the scene of the dispute between Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius, a subject that represents an affirmation of religious over secular authority. In addition to these scenes from the saint’s life, the decoration of the oratory included other auxiliary paintings on allegorical themes.

The fact that Archbishop Spínola’s features are used for Saint Ambrose in the paintings, the presence of probable portraits in various scenes, and the use of architectural references familiar to Sevillians make the content of this series notably self-referential.

Social spaces

This section includes works that either belonged to series comparable to the previous ones on display in the exhibition or are related to the works in those series in terms of the story they depict, their composition, date, size or clients. They are grouped together under the shared theme of “Social spaces”, of two different types:

“The banquet”, through which artists depicted a communal activity and context that conveyed the ideals of luxury of the clients who commissioned these works; and “By a well”, an element which, in a way similar to a village fountain, provided one of the most important locations for social relations in the pre-industrial world. Their outdoor situation reminds us that painting in series was one of the most important motors for the development of landscape painting in Andalusian art of this period.

All these factors allow for a focus on some important series that are now dispersed or incomplete. In addition, the fact that they are by five different painters who were associated with Córdoba, Seville and Granada allows for a comparison to be made at the end of the exhibition between the narrative techniques and pictorial styles of Alonso Cano, Murillo, Antonio del Castillo, Valdés Leal and Juan de Sevilla.

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