The return of an artistic original

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was remarkably successful as a religious and secular painter in his home city of Seville. But this 17th-century Spanish artist's reputation has not always remained in the ascendant. It was at its height in the 19th century. The 20th century developed a distaste for his work, however – perhaps because of what was perceived as his sentimental religiosity. His acclaim in the art world was then overtaken by a greater enthusiasm for such Spanish artists as Velasquez, El Greco, and Goya.

Paradoxically, an uncritical popularization also militated against serious appraisal. Murillo became the overimitated, unfairly cheapened model for a certain kind of saccharin devotional picture.

Nevertheless, he is one of art history's magnificent originals.

Scholarly study of him has not entirely waned. In the past 25 years, something of a reinstatement has been under way. And now an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, celebrates the fact that Murillo has always been keenly collected by individuals and museums. This is the first American exhibition of Murillos from collections in the United States, and the first comprehensive US show of his work.

All aspects of the artist's work are represented in American collections, even the cycles of large-scale paintings he produced for churches and religious confraternities. "The Return of the Prodigal Son," shown here, was one of 11 paintings he made for the church of a charity hospital called "la Caridad." Another artist was commissioned to produce paintings that would make death seem so frightening that the congregation would turn from evil ways to good. But since this institution was principally founded to perform charitable works, Murillo's paintings were to illustrate the Acts of Mercy set out in St Matthew's gospel.

The "Prodigal" shows how apt his dramatic but gently presented art was for such a commission. Murillo tells the parable with scrupulous accuracy. But he further conveys, through wonderfully felt touch and facial expression, the tender forgiveness of the prodigal's father. He tempers this humanity with a realism that depicts the son's rags and grime.

Murillo could sometimes paint religious subjects as if they were inseparable from domestic, everyday life. Here, he brings this appreciation of home to bear, appropriately, on one of the most profoundly significant Christian parables.

• 'Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), Paintings from American Collections,' is at the Kimbell Gallery in Fort Worth, Texas, until June 6. It will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from July 14 to Oct. 6.

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