Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
(Seville, Spain, 1617– 1682, Seville, Spain)
Oil on canvas
36 5/8 x 26 1/8 in. (93 x 66.4 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.72.04
Listen to Dr. Rebecca Quinn Teresi, specialist in Golden Age Spanish painting and works on paper, discuss this work (2:27 minutes)
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617–1682)
Saint Justa, c. 1665
by Rebecca Quinn Teresi, Ph.D. candidate, Johns Hopkins University
This painting depicting Saint Justa, patroness of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s native Seville, is remarkable for its utter loveliness. Along with its pendant portraying Saint Rufina, also at the Meadows, this work is exemplary of the artist’s signature sweet style, which won him acclaim both among his contemporaries and later collectors alike. In it, we can appreciate Murillo’s command of a variety of technical approaches in a single work. Take a moment to consider carefully the hazy, vaporous quality and blurred contours in the young saint’s face. Compare them to the more painterly passages—where pigment is applied in bold confident strokes such as in the saint’s golden garment or in her martyr’s palm—and you will understand how Murillo’s skill was thought to be on par with that of Titian in the decades after his death. While such sweetness and beauty inspired devotion, they also inspired acquisitiveness, making these pictures sought after and fought over across the centuries.
Like the martyred Sevillian saint it represents, this picture tells a fascinating story of suffering and recovery. Though the young saint’s features are evidently idealized, she is nevertheless individualized. And, it was this portrait-like quality that, along with an unfortunate mistranscription, contributed to a claim that this picture and its companion—once looted by the Nazis during the Second World War—had never been restituted to their rightful owner. Archival research conducted by the late Meadows Museum curator Nichole Atzbach rectified the incomplete and troubling provenance of these pictures. The pair was owned by Baroness Antoinette Leonino, a Rothschild granddaughter, and was restituted in the mid-1940s. They were then sold in the 1960s to a French dealer for their frames, as the pictures were then thought to be copies, after which they were savvily acquired for the fledgling Meadows Museum in 1972.
Beyond the archive, the canvas itself also tells an interesting story of turmoil, this time chemical. Technical study by the Kimbell Art Museum’s chief conservator Claire Berry revealed that the swag of gathered drapery covering Saint Justa’s left arm—now a dull, gray-brown—would’ve originally been a brilliant and vivid blue. Murillo intended a much greater chromatic intensity and brilliance than what we see today lost to us because of the chemical properties of the smalt pigment used in this canvas.