Arts / Museums

From Heaven to Earth in Fort Worth — Murillo’s Spanish Masterpieces Shed Light on Both the Ultra Rich and the Painfully Poor

The Kimbell Unveils Another Powerhouse Exhibition as Its 50th Anniversary Approaches

BY // 09.16.22

The Kimbell Art Museum has achieved much notoriety for its collaborative work with the other top museums and collections, bringing some amazing exhibitions to Fort Worth over the past five decades. With The Kimbell ramping up to an epic 50th Anniversary celebration set for the first week of October, it is unveiling another stunner.

Murillo: From Heaven to Earth opens this Sunday, September 18. It’s the largest collection of Murillo masterpieces to be gathered anywhere in the past 20 years, according to Kimbell director Eric M. Lee.

The exhibition is called “From Heaven To Earth” because while Spanish Golden Age painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 to 1682) is famous for his religious subjects, this show turns its attention to his secular scenes and depictions of daily life in his native Seville, Spain during a time of great wealth juxtaposed by equally great poverty.

The show features 50 paintings. The scope includes lowly depictions of the poor, alongside the artist’s portraits of Spanish clergymen, merchant and aristocrats, plus Biblical scenes and stories.

“Murillo’s depictions of everyday scenes are especially remarkable because they have no real precedent in Spain,” Lee says. “The show hopes to shed new light on these paintings’ complex meanings, revealing their importance in their own time and suggesting their relevance in our own.”

Curator Guillaume Kientz discusses the artworks in the new Murillo exhibit. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Curator Guillaume Kientz discusses the artworks in the new Murillo exhibit. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

Guillaume Kientz, director of the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York, served as the former curator of European art at the Kimbell. Now, he’s the curator of this exhibition. Kientz led a media sneak preview that turned into something of a master class on Murillo.

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The show is inspired by the Murillo masterpiece Four Figures on a Step, which was acquired by the Kimbell in 1984 and remains one of the museum’s most compelling paintings. I’m sure most visitors to the Kimbell have stopped to ponder it over the years. You can’t look away.

Kientz explained that while the figure on the left is smirking at the boy with an unfortunate hole in the back of his pants, the woman who is holding his head is nurturing and protecting him. Murillo is depicting the choice we have ― to either make fun of someone in need or rather to protect them. For the first time ever, I understood that the odd-faced woman in the middle of the scene is half smirking and half compassionate. She cuts the painting in half, as her expression is in transition.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Four Figures on a Step. c.-1655-60. (Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)
Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Four Figures on a Step. c.-1655-60. (Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)

While Murillo: From Heaven to Earth includes a number of his religious paintings, its focus is on these 17th century scenes of Seville, where wealthy Spanish people and Flemish merchants mix with poor and enslaved populations. Murillo blurred the lines between the religious and secular, connecting earth to heaven, while inspiring life on earth. His paintings also reflect on the moral choices of his wealthy benefactors as well as his lowliest subjects.

Kientz notes that Murillo always began with observation from reality. Some of his preliminary sketches show the artist’s process. His depictions were not idealized, so believers could relate to even the Biblical scenes. Murillo added a sense of reality by, for instance, recreating a scene like the Wedding at Cana or The Prodigal Son using contemporary Sevillanos subjects in their period dress and surroundings.

“Murillo had a special interest in children,” Kientz says. “He was the youngest of 14 children who became an orphan at a young age. And he was a father of 10 children himself. So as the famine overtook Seville, the plight of the children was a primary focus.”

Murillo – A pastoral scene of Jacob tending his flocks from the new exhibit. Photo by Courtney Dabney.
A pastoral scene of Jacob tending his flocks from the new Murillo exhibit at the Kimbell. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

The popularity of Picaresque literature of the day put ordinary people from lower social classes at the fore. Along with his contemporary Velasquez, Murillo depicted the poor and their misery in stunning detail.

The theme of fate and one’s moral choices touches many of the paintings, as seen in many of the works focusing on elderly women in the exhibit. Some of these women have made good choices, others are reaping the consequences of bad decisions. Kientz suggests that Murillo focuses on children because they are still salvageable, as they could still make good choices in their lives.

Plus children are charming subjects that readily entice charity ― another major theme in his works.

Murillo: From Heaven to Earth will be on view from September 18 through January 29 at the Kimbell.

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