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Work The Young Beggar

Department of Paintings: Spanish painting

Le Jeune Mendiant

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

Paintings
Spanish painting

Author(s):
De Vergnette François

The Young Beggar is often called The Lice-Ridden Boy because he is delousing himself. The picture is the first known depiction of a street urchin in Murillo's work. The painting was undoubtedly inspired by the rampant misery in the streets of Seville during the Golden Age. Influenced by Caravaggism, Murillo dwells on sordid details and uses stark contrasts of light and shade. Yet the boy also has the gracefulness that is the Sevillian master's hallmark.

A Sevillian picaro

A young boy dressed in rags, with dirty feet, is sitting alone in a corner of some decrepit building. He appears to be busy delousing himself, hence the picture's other title: The Lice-Ridden Boy. Next to him, a pitcher, a basket of apples and the remains of a meal of a few shrimps. This is the first picture by Bartolomé Estebán Murillo depicting a street urchin, a subject he subsequently painted throughout his career. His compatriots Velázquez and Ribera had already taken up the theme, but had preferred to paint disabled subjects (Ribera's The Club-Footed Boy, Musée du Louvre). Yet despite the picture's title, the boy is perhaps not a beggar. In painting the misery of homeless children in Seville during the Golden Age, Murillo was undoubtedly also attempting to create colorful counterparts to the famous characters of Spanish picaresque literature, Lazarillo de Tormes (1511), and the picaro in Cervantès' Exemplary Novels (1613).

A genre painting by a great religious painter

It has been suggested that Flemish merchants living in Seville may have commissioned this genre picture by Murillo. Genre painting, which depicts daily life, was greatly appreciated in Flanders, and the poor were a recurrent subject in Flemish genre painting. Murillo's interest in the needy perhaps also has something to do with the doctrine of charity of the Franciscans, for whom he frequently worked. Murillo, the last of the great painters of Spain's Golden Age, was above all a religious painter. For the Franciscans of Seville he painted a cycle of pictures to which The Angels' Kitchen (Musée du Louvre) belongs.

An elegant Caravaggism

In this early work, no doubt painted around 1645-50, we see the influence of Caravaggism, which Murillo may have discovered in the works of Zurbarán and in the Sevillian pictures of Velázquez. Like his predecessors, Murillo was intent on depicting the sordid details, the boy's dirtiness, and the still life motifs ("bodegones") of the basket and pitcher. He also used their harsh chiaroscuro. A beam of sunlight spotlights the child sitting in a shady interior. Substances - the woven straw of the basket, for instance - are rendered in broad brushstrokes and thick impasto. But here Murillo also shows his sense of harmony in the perfect composition and the young boy's graceful pose and physique. The child's profound dignity differentiates him from the truculent figures of Flemish genre scenes. Murillo subsequently gravitated towards a less austere, gentler and more tender style (The Holy Family, Musée du Louvre).

Bibliography

Ressort Claudie, Écoles espagnole et portugaise, catalogue du département des peintures du musée du Louvre, Paris, RMN, 2002, p. 198-202.
Brooke Xanthe et Cherry Peter, Murillo : scenes of childhood, catalogue d'exposition, Londres Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2001, p. 86.

Technical description

  • Bartolomé Esteban MURILLO (Séville, 1618 - Séville, 1682)

    Le Jeune Mendiant

    Vers 1645-1650

  • H. : 1,34 m. ; L. : 1,10 m.

  • Collection de Louis XVI (acquis en 1782) , 1782

    INV. 933

  • Paintings

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