The Prodigal Son of Spanish Baroque Art

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DALLAS – Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is often presented alongside Velázquez and Zurbarán as one of the master painters of the Spanish Golden Age. A new exhibit in Dallas shows us why. Murillo: the image of the prodigal son at the Meadows Museum features the Sevillian artist’s dazzling depictions of the biblical parable from the Gospel of Luke.

Murillo is perhaps best known for his feathery, flowing Madonnas, which can take on a bit of a chewing-gum quality next to the austere, darker works of his contemporaries. But the Prodigal Son series shows Murillo’s depth as a storyteller. His skillfully painted canvases are filled with realistic and compelling figures that even the most secular viewer will appreciate, if not identify with.

The comprehensive exhibition – the only one of its kind in the United States – draws on recently curated works from the National Gallery of Ireland, among other institutions. “The series is extraordinary, not only because it is made up of beautiful paintings,” explained curator Amanda W. Dotseth during a recent visit to the exhibition, “but because it is the only one by Murillo in remain in the same collection today. This is a unique opportunity to see a narrative series by Murillo brought together in one room, as the artist would have intended it to be seen.

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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617-1682), “The Prodigal Son Feasting” (1660s), oil on canvas, 41 1/8 x 53 inches. National Gallery of Ireland. Presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection) (photo © National Gallery of Ireland)

Although the story of the prodigal son is well known by now, it was not a common subject in 17th-century Spanish visual art. Murillo probably drew etchings on the subject of other European artists, such as Albrecht Dürer, Jacques Callot and Pietro Testa. Dotseth helpfully included these references, along with a theatrical text of Lope de Vega’s story. The materials allow us to compare, in Dotseth’s words, “how a standard text is interpreted by different individuals over time,” but they also demonstrate Murillo’s inventiveness. The artist did much more than simply translate these works onto canvas. His dynamic compositions, delicate colors and moving poses bring his version of the story to life. It even includes two-piece local Iberian black pigs, lending a sense of closeness and a dash of humor to the religious tale.

In another canvas, a lavish dinner scene captures the son at the height of his hedonism, surrounded by food, drink and women. “Of all the canvases, this is the only one that shows physical evidence of having been rolled up – perhaps a form of censorship,” noted Dotseth, referring to restrictions from the Spanish Baroque era. “I think to contemporary eyes it seems rather benign, but Murillo very cleverly engages all the senses in his imagining of debauchery here.”

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617-1682), “The Departure of the Prodigal Son” (1660s), oil on canvas, 41 1/8 x 53 inches. National Gallery of Ireland. Presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection) (photo © National Gallery of Ireland)

Murillo also engages our sense of empathy. Rather than focusing on the final resolution of the story, it breaks it down into six distinct moments that gradually turn into drama. These painted dots allow us to follow alongside the wayward son, looking at his trials and tribulations through time. “The journey of the soul is very important in 17th century theology, as is the timing and act of penance,” Dotseth said. “There is a spiritual process that happens between the paintings.” Thanks to Murillo’s unique narrative strategy, even those unfamiliar with Christian doctrine will recognize the protagonist’s progress from lost to found.

As a bonus, The Meadows included a variety of independent artwork by Murillo in the final gallery of the exhibit. From a small crucifix scene to a mural of the biblical figure Jacob, these varied works demonstrate the breadth of the artist’s oeuvre and his astonishing technique. They also give us insight into Murillo’s engagement with other narratives. His large and enigmatic “Four Figures on a Step” (c. 1655-1660), a tightly cropped painting of people in period clothing, continued to elude plain reading. Whether of his own making or drawn from outside sources, Murillo’s stories continue to intrigue.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617-1682), “The Hunted Prodigal Son” (1660s), oil on canvas, 41 1/8 x 53 inches. National Gallery of Ireland. Presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection) (photo © National Gallery of Ireland)
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617-1682), “The Prodigal Son Feeding Pigs” (1660s), oil on canvas, 41 1/8 x 53 inches. National Gallery of Ireland. Presented, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection) (photo © National Gallery of Ireland)
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617-1682), “The Prodigal Son Among the Pigs” (1656-1665), oil on canvas, 63 5/8 x 41 1/8 inches. The Hispanic Society of America
Installation view of Murillo: the image of the prodigal son at the Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas (photo by Guy Rogers III)

Murillo: the image of the prodigal son continues at the Meadows Museum (5900 Bishop Blvd., Dallas, Texas) through June 12. The exhibit was curated by Acting Director and Curator of the Meadows Museum, Amanda W. Dotseth.

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