Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is at the Frick, holding court in the downstairs galleries. The exhibition marks the Sevillian artist’s four-hundredth birthday and takes as its point of departure two self-portraits, the more modest of which has been owned by the Frick since 2014. The other, painted when Murillo was older and admirably honest about his aging appearance, comes from London’s National Gallery. The honesty business merits mention because Murillo couldn’t always be counted on to supply an unsweetened serving. Among the masters of the Spanish baroque, Murillo looks anomalous: Velázquez, Zurbarán, and Ribera each possessed more gravitas. Murillo’s best-known works are honeyed Madonnas and adorable street urchins.
The current show doesn’t alter his legacy, but much credit to the curators for pulling together work that avoids the confections and pinpoints Murillo’s deeper gifts. One gift was a fondness for trompe l’oeil—what we now call willingness to break the picture plane—as in the hand that projects from the London self-portrait, the heraldic border with putti painted around a portrait of Juan Arias de Saavedra—a minister of the Spanish Inquisition—or the flirtatious senoritas at the sill in Two Women at a Window, a worthy precursor to the coquettes of Goya and Manet. In that canvas, the young girl with the direct stare is the star, but the standout passages belong to the supporting actress who is half-hidden in the shadows. Her head, hand, and veil, as crisply painted as Murillo allowed, are no less impressive for being half-lit; the artist didn’t have this much fun with his fully-illuminated figures, where he blurred edges and tamped down the pigment. There’s no such sublimation upstairs in the West Gallery, where one can revisit superior examples of Spanish painting. Murillo’s limitations may be gaged through comparison with El Greco’s portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi and Goya’s The Forge. Comparing him to the greatest Spanish painter, whose shadow is all but inescapable, is probably unfair. As Whistler once asked, “Why drag in Velázquez?”
The Frick’s other current micro-show is a less generously promoted salute to a greater master. Paolo Veronese doesn’t always get his due, as was recognized by art historians in the late twentieth century. This was Bernard Berenson in 1960:
When I contemplate Veronese’s paintings, I experience a satisfaction so full and perfect that my whole being is engaged—my senses, my faculties, my intellect. If he paints a trifle less subtly than Velasquez or Vermeer, he creates, through his images, much more of a House of Life than either of them, and so, all things considered, I love him at least as much as any painter who ever wielded a brush.
Lawrence Gowing wrote in 1987:
The French had no doubts, as the critic Théophile Gautier wrote in 1860, that Veronese was the greatest colorist who ever lived—greater than Titian, Rubens, or Rembrandt because he established the harmony of natural tones in place of the modelling in dark and light that remained the method of academic chiaroscuro. Delacroix wrote that Veronese made light without violent contrasts, ‘which we are always told is impossible, and maintained the strength of hue in shadow’.
Of course Veronese paints less subtly than Velázquez and Vermeer; where they are optical magicians whose native condition was contemplative, he is a Venetian, with all the affinity for color and bustle that implies. Veronese dined on complex interaction between figures—the more the better—especially if they could be sumptuously clothed. His taste for pageantry famously received unwanted attention from the Inquisition, when his huge canvas of the Last Supper drew scrutiny for its surfeit of animals, dwarfs, and German soldiers. The possibility of heresy was not to be taken lightly, even if Venice was a relative safe haven and Veronese had patrons both within and outside the church. He explained at his tribunal that “we painters take the same liberties as poets and madmen.” Ordered to repaint the canvas, Veronese found an alternative that satisfied all, and simply retitled the painting Feast in the House of Levi.
The influence of his bounteous sensibility and iridescent palette were not as widespread as Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light and shadow, but it was profound. Rubens, Van Dyck, Watteau, Delacroix, Bonington, and the Impressionists were his heirs, so it’s fair to say his example reached Flanders, France, and England—anywhere, in fact, where color retained prominence.
The pair of paintings visiting the Oval Room at the Frick hail from an isolated church in Murano and are making a triumphant tour following their recent cleaning and restoration. Both involve spartan subjects. St. Agatha Visited in Prison by St. Peter is an unusual and transcendent take on a gruesome martyrdom, and his St. Jerome in the Wilderness was, according to the museum’s curator, the first depiction of the saint that emphasized his repentance rather than his studiousness—thereafter, he was removed from his library, and images of Jerome beating his chest with a rock dominated the iconography. The lively St. Agatha was painted from imagination, while St. Jerome appears to have been done, in part, from a live model; the naturalism of the old man’s head is hard to explain otherwise (its realism is, incidentally, more similar to that of the best Sevillian painters of the following century than it is to his fellow Venetian, Giovanni Bellini, whose St. Francis bears comparison nearby). Though both canvases demonstrate Veronese’s thematic and compositional powers of invention, neither subject presented the artist with his bread and butter. That he was not by nature a painter of asceticism is underscored by returning to the West Gallery, where the Frick’s two Veroneses are installed. Better still, walk to the Met to admire Venus and Mars United by Love. Veronese is most himself as a sensualist, abiding in, as Berenson might say, the “House of Life.”
Murillo: The Self-Portraits continues through February 4, 2018 and Veronese in Murano: Two Venetian Renaissance Masterpieces Restored continues through March 25, 2018, at the Frick Collection.