When discussing European art, it's quite easy to get caught up in the work of artists from Italy, France, Germany, Holland, and England to the point that most other countries are slighted to a considerable degree. In all the other mainland countries, one or perhaps two great artists come to mind. Considering the number of great works and the great artists who produced them, Spain is probably the most underestimated country in all of Europe. We know El Greco (who wasn't really Spanish), we know Velázquez, we know Picasso (though we more often associate him with France) and if we think real hard we can name Miró and Dali, but that's about it--five hundred years of art and we can count the familiar artists from this country on the fingers of one hand. Very well, in an attempt to get that number into the two-handed category, let me propose another Spanish painter that should be thought of in the same league as those above. His name is Bartolomé Murillo.
Murillo didn't lead a particularly dramatic life. Born around 1617 in Seville, he did have the misfortune to have been orphaned by the age of ten, though in fact this may have been a bit of good fortune in disguise. He went to live with an uncle, J.A. Legares, a barber (the original Barber of Seville perhaps?). Even as a child his uncle saw to it he spent his time in the atelier of Juan del Castillo, who, though a mediocre painter himself, was a gifted instructor of art. As a teenager, Murillo earned money by "manufacturing" sargas, which were cheap, religious paintings for local street fairs and for export to the Americas. Around 1640 he journeyed to Madrid where he met fellow Sevillian artist Diego Velázquez and thus gained access to the royal collection and works by Flemish, French, and Italian artists. Velázquez was known to have taken him under his wing and helped him obtain several religious commissions.
When Murillo returned to Seville, he led a simple, unexciting life, a journeyman artist who was never short of work, consistently turning out exceptional religious images, principally involving the Virgin Mary, holy family paintings, and other biblical scenes. Often, perhaps recalling the sargas of his youth, he did multiple versions of the same scene for different clients. Spain was revelling in new world gold at the time. It was a lively market. His religious works are, today, often seen as sentimental, though no more so than the Spanish religious temperament of his time. Perhaps his most interesting and unusual efforts are his genre scenes of youthful poverty such as his 1645 painting, The Young Beggar. There is a stark, startling realism seen in few of his religious works. A harsh light filters into an otherwise darkened room, finding a raggedly dressed boy of perhaps twelve, seeking out a flea inside his shirt, while at his dirty bare feet are scraps of shrimp and uneaten apples. Viewing this and another two or three similar paintings of this type, one wonders if Murillo may have been reliving his own childhood poverty. In 1682, just as a tragedy in his youth had led him to a life of art, another also ended it. While painting The Marriage of St. Catherine, for the Capuchin church in Cadiz, Murillo fell from his scaffolding. He died the next day.