The 17th-century Spanish artist Murillo was something of a specialist in the kind of genre painting that featured urchins or peasant boys, watched - sometimes - by stray dogs, and complemented by a more or less elaborate still life - pitchers, baskets of food, hunks of bread, melons, grapes - and often the small boys are seen to be doing more than justice to this fare.
Although at the outset these Murillos apparently owe something to Velazquez's ''bodogones'' (kitchen scenes) and have a fraternal relationship with the ''low life'' paintings of Ribera, no other painter finally produced anything quite like them.
Whatever the various estimates of Murillo's art in general, and these tatterdemalion pictures in particular, have been (and ''various'' is the operative word), they are painted with assurance, with a striking sense of strong composition, with a mixture of observation and tenderness, and with a powerful effect of light and shadow. The children are by no means anonymous, or just ''types.'' Their faces are individual and often show marked contrasts of mood or character. In spite of their evident poverty, some of them, at least, seem to be thoroughly enjoying life, robustly oblivious to their deprivations, somewhat mischievous, perhaps, and certainly carefree. It might not be too far- fetched to see them as the Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns of 17th-century Andaluasia.
In terms of the history of taste, these paintings were able to stir vigorous responses, both pro and con, for over two centuries. Then in the present century , there came a period of comparative neglect. Now there is once again a growing respect for them. Perhaps it is not surprising that this coincides with renewed interest in 19th-century academic painting. It was in 19th-century England, in particular, that Murillo was elevated to a stardom in the pantheon of Spanish artists which now inevitably seems exaggerated.
William Hazlitt described this Murillofrom the Dulwich gallery as ''the triumph of the collection, and almost of painting. In the imitation of common life, nothing ever went beyond it, or, as far as we can judge, came up to it.'' This praise was not due to some blindness, on Hazlitt's part, to the sentimentality in Murillo's view of poverty. He was strongly critical of a Gainsborough based, rather obviously, on the left-hand boy in the Murillo. Called ''Cottage Girl With Dog and Pitcher,'' perhaps this Gainsborough to some extent merited the critic's blast. It translates Murillo's more matter-of-fact feeling into a sweet wistfulness. Hazlitt talked of it as having ''a consciousness in the turn of the head, and . . . a regular insipidity . . . to which real nature is a stranger.''
Not everyone, however, felt that Murillo's two peasant boys deserved Hazlitt's hearty accolade. Ruskin went to the other extreme. In 1853 he wrote: ''Look at those two ragged and vicious vagrants that Murillo has gathered out of the street . . . . Do not call this the painting of nature: it is mere delight in foulness.''
In our century, opinion has taken another turn, and Murillo has either been totally ignored (as in Gombrich's ''The Story of Art'') or has been the butt of unfortunate criticism like Peter and Linda Murray's in their ''Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists.''
They say that his ''later beggar-boy scenes . . . exploit . . . a sentimental attitude,'' and they observe that ''he found a ready market for these glamorized, picturesque urchins in fancy dress rags, exuding the charm of bohemianism and serving to exorcise poverty by robbing it of its power to inspire pity and horror.''
Perhaps the Dulwich picture (and its companion in the same gallery, which shows three boys, one of them black) partially escape this swingeing denigration , because they are thought to come from the middle period of Murillo's career, about the late 1660s. Yet it isn't easy to defend them against the barb of ''fancy-dress rags''; these costumes do look contrived.
Nonetheless, there is no reason to suppose that it was the artist's intention to inspire pity and horror.
There are other possible and legitimate attitudes which can be taken to such a subject. Looking at the picture with as little prejudice as possible, one could say that he was being neither mawkish nor callous, and certainly not delighting in ''foulness,'' but managed a rather balanced view of these children , a mixture of the objective and subjective, a sympathy of realism and idealism.