After her 3,700 battles with the Moors and the conquest of Granada, Spain had a splendid outburst of literary and artistic glory. In painting, the four schools of Valencia, Toledo, Madrid, and Seville suddenly shone forth with that conception of the real and that care for sharp relief which they owed to the brilliancy of their sunshine, while amid the fogs of the North the outline is more wavering and the vision less clear. Under the influence of this original realism, their works instinctively reproduced that two-fold character which the land of Spain, smiling in her valleys and savage in her mountains, shows in sharp contrast. But the Spaniards are, in truth, much more realistic in their execution than in their inspiration.

The school of Seville, founded by Luis de Vargas, counted among its illustrious masters the greatest painter of that sunlit and passionate Andalusia, Murillo (Bartolomé-Estéban), 1617-1682, Spain's most popular painter, "the painter of the Conceptions," as she called him.

The Immaculate Conception. Murillo.

The Immaculate Conception.

His uncle, Juan del Castillo, a mediocre artist but a good teacher, initiated him into his dry, stiff, and hard manner,—that of the old Florentine school. In his studio young Estéban Murillo had young Pedro de Moya as a fellow-student. One day the former took a fancy to go to Cadiz, where, miserable enough, he painted on pieces of serge some Madonnas for traffic in the West Indies, while the latter went to London to work in Van Dyck's studio. On his return Pedro de Moya brought several studies of the Flemish master, and Murillo, suddenly revolutionized and suddenly illuminated, no longer dreamed of anything but of going to Flanders or Italy, passing—happily—through Madrid. In Madrid, the Velasquez of the Court of Charles II. stopped him on the way, gave him admission to the royal collections, where he copied Titian, Veronese, and Rubens, and then opened his purse to him, and, lastly, revealed the secrets of his mighty art.

Thus taught and thus inspired, Murillo returned to Seville, where he settled once for all, immuring himself in his studio, where—modest, timid, and gentle—he lived with that single love for his art which soon enriched him, two years later adding to it the adoration of his wife, a noble lady of Pilas. It was from this studio that almost all of his laborious, numerous, and superb works issued, sometimes scarcely signed. From the very beginning, Murillo possessed all the qualities of a great master, and henceforth we have only to separate his own personality and originality.

Murillo had three periods, as he also had three styles according to the nature of the subjects he had to treat: the first period, under the influence of the Florentine formulas of Juan del Castillo, was somewhat that of happy and masterly imitations; the second, under the memories of Van Dyck, brought back by Pedro de Moya and of the copies painted at Madrid, belongs to the Flemish school. But, at thirty-five, in full possession of his genius, he reveals himself, with his superb colouring, his consummate ease, his great science, his rich and inexhaustible imagination, his exquisite and tender sentiment, and his harmony, often produced with feminine delicacy and childish grace, with his vigour, his trivialities, and his mysticism.

The genius of Murillo, in fact, obeyed a double current, which carried him forward, on the one hand towards the sky, and on the other towards the earth, towards the Catholic ideal or towards vulgar realities, gentle Madonnas alternately with knavish beggars. Very sincerely and observantly religious, with the contemplative soul of the land of great men and great mysteries, Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa, this chaste artist, who never painted a nude woman, has the exalted sentiment of faith of the Spanish artists, a sentiment which is somewhat ennobled by their realism of nature.

"Why don't you finish that Christ?" asked one of his friends.

"I am waiting until he comes to speak to me," replied Murillo.

With these works he enriched the chapter-house of the Seville Cathedral, the Hospital de la Caridad, that of the Hospital de los Venerables, the convents of the Capuchins, the Augustines, etc.

I have said that Murillo had three styles, almost three pencils, not like the pencils of gold, of silver, and of iron that the Venetians attributed to the unequal genius of Tintoret, but in sympathy with the subjects he had to treat. The Spaniards have distinguished and qualified these styles as follows: Frio, calido y vaporoso, cold, warm, and vaporous.

In the cold style he painted broadly, boldly, and frankly his beggars and his muchachos, so true to life and in strong relief, with a certain brutality almost approaching triviality. A very well-known work of this kind is the Pouilleux in the Museum of the Louvre, and a masterpiece in the Pinacothek of Munich, the Grandmother and Infant. He sought these types in some old Moorish dwelling, on the deck of a ship from Tunis or Tripoli anchored in a Spanish harbour, or in among a band of wandering Gitanos on the banks of the Guadalquivir.

In the vaporous manner, which he used in rendering the ecstasies of the saints, he painted (under indescribable transparencies of light and atmospheric shade which is really only extinguished light), Saint Francis in Ecstasy, The Angel Kitchen (Miracle of San Diego) running through several scales of tones in a marvellous chord and softening all the outlines "dulcemente perdidos," as Céan Bermudez says.

In his warm style, come his Annunciations, Conceptions, and all those gentle and graceful Madonnas, sweet and poetic young mothers rather than divine Virgins "whom Jews might kiss and Infidels adore," as Pope says, and which remind us of Correggio's effeminacy, unknown to Murillo, and in which he plays with ease with harmonies, contrasts, and reflections of colour.

The Immaculate Conception, in the National Museum of the Louvre, is of this style. Certainly it is not more beautiful than the Conception in Madrid, of such extraordinary brilliance, and of such a virginal expression of innocence, piety, and melancholy; and above all not more beautiful than that of Seville—The Great Conception, or the Pearl of Conceptions, making the Virgin Mother's face into a beautiful and intense face of an archangel. That had its day of resounding triumph.

Every one knows that Marshal Soult accepted this work in Spain for the pardon of two monks condemned to be hanged as spies. On the 29th of May, 1852, this canvas was sold at auction. Around it the greatest nations were represented with their rival gold, and loud applause accompanied each royal bid. When, for the sum of 615,300 francs, it was knocked down—"To France, gentlemen!" cried the Count de Nieuwerkerke—then broke forth the delirium of a battle won.

In a diaphanous atmosphere gilded with an invisible clearness as of Paradise, the winged heads and bodies of little angels are moving: the former gracefully grouped, the latter boldly and skilfully disposed. The celestial infants have followed all the way to the earth the rays of celestial light in its elusive gradations of colour under its imperceptible glazing. In the centre, in the act of ascent, the Virgin rises in ecstasy. One corner of a cloud, the crescent moon, and a masterly group of little angels, naked and enraptured, bear the Immaculate aloft. Gracefully and statuesquely posed, and broadly draped in a white robe with sober folds enriched by an ample scarf of light blue, she modestly hides her feet under the drapery and chastely crosses her hands over the breast in which she feels the conception of the Son of God operating. Her head under its dishevelled waves of black hair, a little turned back and bending slightly to one side, is raised to heaven with uplifted eyes and open mouth, as if to receive in every sense the flow of the spirit. The face, in the exquisite sweetness of a surrender to piety, reflects the bliss of Faith, of mystical voluptuousness, and divine ecstasy. The expression is religious, but the Virgin is human, and full of life in the firmness of her lines and the warmth of her flesh-tints. Beneath the suppleness of the drawing and the soft touches we recognize in Mary the Immaculate, the woman and even the Andalusian.

The whole work is a most harmonious and well-balanced composition, of the greatest opulence of colour, solidly laid in, and here and there lightly glazed over in the Venetian manner; a superb work this, in which Murillo has found the right point where his idealism and his materialism meet and mingle.

If I remember rightly, we know one hundred and thirty canvases of Murillo, to any one of which our admiration hesitates to award the pre-eminence,—and if the crown of laurels which a Pope laid upon the funeral couch of Raphael is the consecration of the sovereignty of the painter of Urbino for History, the universally popular name of Murillo has also sanctified the incontestable genius of the painter of Seville.

Jouin, Chefs-d'œuvre: Peinture, Sculpture Architecture (Paris, 1895-97).