The Boys of Seville

EVER tried to eat grapes this way? It's always been the hard way to do it. Very tough to swallow! But, of course, if you are holding onto a piece of melon with the other hand, maybe it works OK. Also hard to talk to a friend with grapes hanging into your mouth. But we can be pretty sure these boys' mothers weren't around to tell them not to talk with their mouths full.

Were these boys' mothers around at all?

Let's see what we can tell about them from the information given in the painting. Well, their clothes are torn in a number of places and the grape guy's shirt is practically rags. Their feet are dirty, so maybe they don't wear shoes. The basket at the lower left is full of grapes, but the handle is broken. Still, the boys look healthy. And if they're not well fed now, they will be shortly.

All in all, they look rather like Huckleberry Finn: happy, streetwise, and able to take care of themselves.

The boy that Mark Twain used as the model for Huckleberry Finn lived about 150 years ago in Missouri. These boys lived 200 years earlier than that - and in the Spanish city of Seville.

The painting was done by a Spanish artist named Bartolom'e Esteban Murillo, who made his reputation doing religious paintings for monasteries and parish churches. He probably had a good time sketching and painting street urchins, who were living such a different kind of life.

Murillo seems to have sold these paintings to buyers, not in Spain, but in northern Europe, in the thriving merchant cities of what are now Belgium and the Netherlands.

These boys seem to be sitting next to a black or gray wall. Murillo doesn't tell us much about the actual conditions of their lives. Some people who look at this painting think Murillo has sentimentalized these kids' situations. That is: He's led us to think they're happier than they might have been.

The British art critic John Ruskin objected to Murillo's not telling us more about the conditions the boys actually lived in. ``Do you feel moved by any charity towards children as you look at them?'' he asked. ``Are we the least more likely to take any interest in ragged schools, or to help the next pauper child that comes in our way, because the painter has shown us a cunning beggar feeding greedily?''

Perhaps these are questions to think about, especially when we see homeless men, women, and even children in our own streets.

On the other hand, Ruskin called these boys ``ragged and vicious vagrants'' and ``repulsive and wicked children.'' These adjectives may tell us more about Ruskin and his time than they do about these Seville boys and theirs.

Perhaps the humanity of Murillo's view - he sees the boys as happy, resourceful, and vital kids - is a better way of looking at them.

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