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There have been long years in which the name of Bartolomé Esteban, known to the world as Murillo, was one to conjure with. Velazquez, El Greco, Ribera, Zurburan, Goya, were long uncertain in their appeal, recognised only by the enlightened among their contemporaries and ignored by the great majority of their fellow-countrymen. The pendulum of taste swings slowly from one extreme to the other, and, as the moods and needs of men change so they cast their idols into the dust, where they remain until another generation restores what it can find to the old pedestals. Nowadays Murillo has fallen from his high estate among the elect; they prefer to magnify his shortcomings rather than to acknowledge his many merits, to ignore the splendid service he rendered to Spanish art and the profound effect of his pictures in drawing countless simple souls within the sheltering folds of the Church. The fifty years of his devoted labours count for nothing, the self-searching and criticism that enabled the painter to move from a low plane to a high one are forgotten. This is not as it should be. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo had his limitations, but remains, despite them all, one of the world’s teachers, and such glimpses of his life as may be seen through the shadows of some two hundred and fifty years reveal him as a serious artist who added to splendid natural gifts a steadfastness of purpose, a determination to do his best, a love of Andalusia, and a devotion to the religion in which he was brought up that must compel the admiration of thinking men however critical, and enable the artist to stand alone. In the early years of his sojourn he suffered from the pinch of poverty. He was born when Diego de Silva Velazquez was just about to enter upon his splendid career, in fact, Murillo would have been about five years old when his great contemporary left Seville for Madrid. Perhaps if we could see with understanding eyes we might be tempted to believe that the less distinguished artist enjoyed the happier life, for Velazquez in the court of kings had much to endure that never troubled the younger man who laboured in the service of the King of kings, and may have seen such visions as lightened the labours of Beato Angelico in the Convent of the Dominicans of St. Anthony in Padua, and St. Francis in Assisi. For the best of Murillo’s canvases whisper to us of inspiration, of devout belief, and of an overmastering love for the “Maria santissima,” and when the simple-hearted painter saw that his work brought honour to the cathedrals and convents for which he laboured he must have felt that his art was its own exceeding great reward.
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