DALLAS — Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is often touted alongside Velázquez and Zurbarán as one of the master painters of the Spanish Golden Age. A new exhibition in Dallas shows us why. Murillo: Picturing the Prodigal Son at the Meadows Museum presents the Sevillian artist’s dazzling depictions of the biblical parable from the Gospel of Luke.
Murillo is perhaps best known for his feathery, floating Madonnas, which can take on a bit of a bubble gum quality next to the austere, darker works of his contemporaries. But the prodigal son series shows Murillo’s depth as a storyteller. His deftly painted canvases are filled with earthy, convincing characters that even the most secular viewer will appreciate, if not relate to.
The full display — the only one of its kind in the United States — draws from recently conserved works from the National Gallery of Ireland, among other institutions. “The series is extraordinary, not just because it is composed of beautiful paintings,” curator Amanda W. Dotseth explained on a recent tour of the exhibition, “but because it’s the only one by Murillo to remain in the same collection today. This is a unique opportunity to see a narrative series by Murillo all together in one room, as the artist would have conceived it to be seen.”
Although the story of the prodigal son is well known to this day, it wasn’t a common subject in 17th-century Spanish visual art. Murillo likely pulled from etchings on the theme by other European artists, like Albrecht Dürer, Jacques Callot, and Pietro Testa. Dotseth has helpfully included these references, along with a theatrical text of the story by Lope de Vega. 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 merely translate these works to canvas. His dynamic compositions, delicate colors, and emotive poses make his version of the story truly come alive. He even includes local black Iberian pigs in two pieces, lending a sense of closeness, and a touch of humor, to the religious tale.
In another canvas, a sumptuous dinner scene captures the son at the height of his hedonism, surrounded by food, drink, and women. “Among all the canvases, this is the only one that shows physical evidence of having been rolled up — perhaps a form of censorship,” Dotseth noted, referring to the strictures of the Spanish Baroque era. “I think to contemporary eyes, it looks pretty benign, but Murillo is very cleverly engaging all the senses in his imagining of debauchery here.”
Murillo also engages our sense of empathy. Rather than focusing on the story’s final resolution, he divides it into six separate moments that progressively build in drama. These painted points allow us to follow alongside the wayward son, watching his trials and tribulations through time. “The journey of the soul is very important in 17th-century theology, as is the moment and act of penance,” Dotseth said. “There’s a spiritual process happening 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 an added bonus, the Meadows has included a variety of unrelated artworks by Murillo in the exhibition’s final gallery. From a small crucifix scene to a wall-sized painting of the biblical figure Jacob, these assorted works demonstrate the breadth of the artist’s oeuvre and his astonishing technique. They also give us a glimpse at Murillo’s engagement with other narratives. His large, enigmatic “Four Figures on a Step” (c. 1655-60), a tightly cropped painting of people in period clothing, has continued to elude simple readings. Whether of his own making or taken from external sources, Murillo’s stories continue to intrigue.
Murillo: Picturing the Prodigal Son continues at the Meadows Museum (5900 Bishop Blvd., Dallas, Texas) through June 12. The exhibition was curated by Meadows Museum Interim Director and Curator Amanda W. Dotseth.