Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
(Seville, Spain, 1617–1682, Seville, Spain)
Oil on canvas
84 x 55 3/8 in. (213.4 x 140.7 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.68.24
Listen to Dr. Rebecca Quinn Teresi, independent art historian, discuss this work (2:12 minutes)
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617–1682)
The Immaculate Conception, 1655–60
by Rebecca Quinn Teresi, independant art historian
This life-size canvas depicts the Immaculate Virgin Mary emerging from a celestial space, hands delicately clasped and eyes aimed heavenward. Together, the painting’s size, chromatic intensity, and sweet style were all calculated to move the emotions of the viewer in its original devotional setting.
The author of this picture, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, is the most famous painter of the Immaculate Conception in Golden Age Spain. This is his second-earliest depiction of the subject. What made these paintings so successful was the artist’s unique visual strategy. Rather than attempting to explain the highly complex theology, he stripped the image down to its barest elements: a radiant Virgin atop the sliver of a crescent moon, a glowing sky, and a handful of putti, who model the response the viewer is meant to experience. Murillo designed his Immaculate Conceptions to be so iconic and moving that for their viewers, belief in the then-contested mystery became visceral rather than intellectual.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the picture is its chromatic brilliance, despite its somewhat limited palette of gold, blue, and white. For example, look carefully at the precision in the handling of the pigments in the Virgin’s garment, which range from bright, crisp white to deep grey and convey both the metaphorical spotlessness of the Virgin’s soul and Murillo’s skill as a colorist. The artist achieved the vivid brilliance of the blue mantle through a combination of three blue pigments: he applied the extraordinarily costly ultramarine blue in a thin layer atop the less-expensive azurite and smalt pigments to achieve chromatic brilliancy without undue extravagance. Technical analysis reveals that the now-gray clouds at the bottom of the picture were also painted in smalt blue, a pigment which dulls over time, meaning the picture would have originally been even more vibrant.