Colnaghi Foundation Journal 03 - Page 171

Scientific intervention in two major Murillo canvases
The greater attention paid to the foreground versus the
background and images in receding planes, gives an
effect of sharp reality and visual unity.
In these works, Murillo first composed the cloudscape
and background scenes, while spaces for principal
figures, which are vague and blurred in outline, are left
uncovered; the result is a unified composition and an
equally unified visual experience for the viewer (fig. 11).
Fig. 11 / Detail of the
pictorial technique that
unifies the composition
by means of the blurred
Fig. 12 / Detail of use of the
base tone in the final result
of the pictorial execution.
At this mature stage, Murillo has a specific visual language,
as evident in his preliminary sketching and even in his
signature. The strokes all share a common feature: pigment
is applied with great confidence and freedom, lightly and
very intuitively. Using different types of brushstroke, a
characteristic zigzag movement or dragging or pressing
of the brush, even over dry paint for the final lines,
Murillo captures the essence of whatever he is rendering.
He has frequent recourse to the base tone of the
Scientific intervention in two major Murillo canvases
priming layer, creating the atmospheric effect that is so
characteristic, even in the space where the base colour
is not unified with the brushwork on the figures, so that
this layer remains visible (fig. 12). Using this coloured
base, he then applies a full brush of colour with the
exact stroke needed to achieve the desired optical effect,
and it is this precise tone which has a strategic influence
on the final composition (fig. 13).
Murillo shows a perfect command of light. He balances
the dark areas to contrast with the points of brightest
illumination. Through subtle gradations of light,
he avoids sharp contrasts and achieves a wonderful
sensation of spatial depth. The gradation and quality
of light is an essential element to the modelling and
unification of the composition within a harmonious
space. In general, the lightest parts stand out because
of a subtle thickish consistency, with a large component
of lead white, contrasting with the intermediate planes,
backgrounds, and clouds, where the brushstrokes are
more fluid. These differences in texture enhance the
lively chromatic and light effects, as well as the ethereal
and cloudy effect that characterizes his work (fig. 14).
Fig. 13 / Detail of the
pictorial technique that
unifies the composition
by means of the blurred
Fig. 14 / Artistic virtuosity
in the details of the hands
and bread.
These paintings present clear examples of Murillo’s
artistic virtuosity, as demonstrated in the foreshortening
of the hands and feet, the expressiveness of the faces
– each individualized with a distinct psychology – the
animals, and the rendering of everyday objects. The
canvases reveal the artist’s outstanding ability to bring
together in his magnificent strokes all the key pictorial
elements: volume, light, colour, and the suggestive
atmosphere, so characteristically enveloping the scenes
in his spatial planes (see fig. 10).
This project has also afforded the opportunity for
the study and intervention in a small, related canvas
representing the scene of Moses.19 It is highly likely
that this constitutes a preliminary sketch and represents
the first outline of an idea set down quickly and
spontaneously. The small canvas retains the essential
ideas of the larger composition, with an assured
placement of the figures, their poses, the areas of light
and shade, all worked with great inventiveness. The base
and colour layers of the sketch use the same variety of
material and pigment as the larger Moses and the Water
from the Rock of Horeb, except for the costly lapis lazuli.
On the pictorial level, the sketch reveals some
pentimenti and modifications. Most of these appeared
with radiography and infra-red reflectography. Examples
include the change in the positions of the horse’s forelegs,
the child looking at the viewer, and Moses’s hands and face.
This painting helps us to understand why few pentimenti
are to be found in the larger canvases, as trials and
corrections were evidently worked out in the sketch. Still,
in the final canvas, Murillo does make a few adjustments to
details, as can be seen in the vessels for collecting water, the
clothing and headdresses of some figures, and in a woman
drinking, who ultimately is transformed into a male figure.


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