The prodigal son restored

The prodigal son restored

Muirne Lydon reveals the original brilliance of Murillo’s Prodigal Son as degraded varnish and old restorations are painstakingly removed from the 17th-century series at the National Gallery of Ireland

The National Gallery of Ireland’s collection of Spanish paintings is particularly rich in works of the 17th century, the Golden Age of Spanish painting. One of the highlights of this collection is a series of six paintings by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682) based on the parable of the Prodigal Son. An exciting conservation project to restore these works is currently underway in the Gallery’s Conservation Department. Nothing is known of the provenance of the series until the 19th century, when the paintings passed through the hands of various Spanish noblemen including the Marqués de Narros, Jóse de Madrazo and the Marqués de Salamanca. The latter had acquired five of the six scenes in 1850 with the sixth, The return of the Prodigal Son going to Queen Isabella of Spain who presented it to Pope Pius IX in 1856.

In 1867, the Earl of Dudley acquired the five Salamanca pictures and immediately opened negotiations with the Vatican for the sixth. An exchange duly took place with the Vatican acquiring Fra Angelico’s Virgin in Glory with saints and Bonifazio’s Holy Family and 2,000 gold napoleons. Thirty years later, Alfred Beit, the South African diamond industrialist, acquired the complete set from the Earl of Dudley. Following his demise in 1906, the full collection passed to his brother Sir Otto Beit the philanthropist who lived in London. In 1930 the works were passed by inheritance to his nephew, Sir Alfred Beit, who in 1952 bought Russborough House near Blessington and brought his outstanding collection of paintings to Ireland. In 1987, the six Murillos were donated by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit to the National Gallery of Ireland along with seventeen other masterpieces including works by Velázquez, Steen and Vermeer.

Conservation and analysis of the series which includes The Prodigal Son receiving his portion (Fig 8), The departure of the Prodigal Son (Fig 7), The Prodigal Son feasting (Fig 9), The Prodigal Son driven Out (Fig 4), The Prodigal Son feeding swine (Fig 5) and The return of the Prodigal Son (Fig 10 ), is providing interesting new insights in to Murillo’s working methods and techniques of which limited research has been carried out on until relatively recently.1

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo painted a number of versions of the Prodigal Son exploring the themes of sin, repentance and forgiveness as told in the gospel of St Luke 15:11 – 15. It has been suggested that Murillo’s model for the series was Don Miguel de Ma√±ara (1629 – 79), a friend and patron of the artist who led a famously immoral existence in his youth, which he later regretted, before dedicating his life to works of charity.2 Ma√±ara was responsible for constructing the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville, for which Murillo was commissioned to paint six canvases to decorate the nave of the church of the Hermandad de la Caridad (Brotherhood of Seville) between 1667 and 1670. Mulcahy suggests that the NGI series could have been commissioned by Ma√±ara and can be interpreted as an allegory of his life.3

Murillo’s initial inspiration for the series was a set of ten etchings by Jaques Callot (1592-1635) and similarities between both artists’ interpretation of the story are evident in The Prodigal Son feeding swine, where Murillo has positioned the central figure in an identical pose to that in Callot’s etching.4 Further similarities can be identified in the compositional setting and anecdotal details of the figures in The Prodigal Son driven out. Murillo’s thoughtful and methodical planning of compositions is evident in his many drawings and oil sketches, which relate to larger-scale paintings including the four small oil sketches of the NGI series that survive in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.5

Following extensive analysis of the materials and techniques used by Murillo in the NGI series, which has been undertaken in conjunction with the Prado Museum, conservation commenced in 2010.6 Examination of the series was enhanced by a range of invasive analytical techniques, including, optical microscopy, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and scanning electron microscopy – energy dispersive X-ray (SEM-EDX) and has contributed to an increased knowledge of Murillo’s practice prior to 1660.

Conservation treatment was primarily undertaken for aesthetic reasons as the clarity of the series had become increasingly worse due to the severe degradation of the old mastic and oil varnish layer, which has obscured Murillo’s handling of paint and his delicate range of light to dark modelling. Before cleaning varnish samples were analysed by GC-MS and were found to contain two layers; an outer layer containing mastic resin and an inner layer containing a mixture of colophony resin and heat-bodied linseed oil. Colophony has poor ageing qualities and was commonly used as a cheap substitute for other resins in oil varnishes throughout the 19th century. As a result, the varnish has degraded and the use of mastic, with a significant addition of linseed oil has resulted in pronounced yellowing throughout the series (Fig 1).

The intention to restore these works to their former glory presented an opportunity to undertake an in-depth study into the techniques and materials used by Murillo.

The intention to restore these works to their former glory presented an opportunity to undertake an in-depth study into the techniques and materials used by Murillo. In addition to the invasive method of analysis a broad range of new information has been discovered through non-invasive methods, including x-radiography and infra-red reflectography. These techniques uncovered a completely different composition beneath the final version of The Prodigal Son feeding swine (Fig 5). In a direct reference to Callot Murillo’s original interpretation of this painting depicts the solitary figure of the prodigal son feeding swine in front of an old ruin (Fig 6). However, in the final composition, Murillo painted out the ruin in favour of a more desolate and bleak landscape. The revised composition communicates the son’s despair and repentance and although all of the works in the series are masterly in their execution, this is certainly the most emotional. Pruitt notes that Murillo is truly at his best when focusing on the depiction of a particular emotion; the viewer is moved by the solitary loneliness of the figure in an inhospitable landscape setting, and by the pleading gestures of the penitent youth whose unguarded expression sends his prayers heavenward.7 It is unusual to find such a major alteration in Murillo’s carefully planned compositions, suggesting the Prado study, which is the same as the final NGI version, was completed after the series as an aide memoir rather than a preparatory study as previously thought.

Although Murillo was an experimental artist and used a variety of supports the majority of his works, including the NGI series, were painted on canvas. Murillo used a range of colours for his ground layers on canvas paintings, which fell between buff to light brown, and share many qualities with those used by other 17th-century painters working in Seville, including Zurbaran and Velázquez.

Microscopic samples taken from the paintings give the impression that Murillo was experimenting with a variety of grounds to affect the tonality and luminosity of the upper paint-layers. In the Prodigal Son driven out, a paint-layer sample taken from the female figure’s blue top shows a bright ultramarine layer applied over a pink wash made from a red lake pigment. The pink wash, which is very similar to the warm pink tones used as highlights in the background of the building, indicates Murillo not only worked fast and efficiently, blocking in large areas of colour, but also extended light under layers to help add depth of tone to his palette.

Analysis of the series confirm Murillo’s palette consisted of a reduced selection of pigments, that were widely used throughout 17th-century Europe including lead white, ultramarine, azurite and smalt, vermillion, lead tin yellow, and carbon and bone black. Murillo’s chromatic range across the series attests to his skill as a colorist. Indeed, to fully appreciate his ability at capturing a particular emotion through the energetic brushwork of his earlier works or his later more delicate estilo vaporoso, it is important to understand the degradation process of materials. In particular, the discolouration of the blue pigment smalt, which is significant in the NGI series.

Murillo’s blue pigments held specific importance and their use reflects the value he placed on individual commissions. As the cost of blue pigments varied, ranging from expensive ultramarine to considerably cheaper smalt, Murillo reserved ultramarine for high quality blues such as those used in his Immaculate Virgin commissions. Due to the expense of this precious pigment use of smalt was widespread throughout Europe from the 15th to the 18th century. A ground blue potassium glass containing cobalt, smalt has a weak tinting strength and a high transparency in oil. When first applied, the pigment would have appeared similar in color to ultramarine, however, when used in oil without the addition of the pigment lead white, it will eventually discolour to a dull grey. Murillo would have anticipated the effects of smalt and indeed areas throughout the series have discolored over time. Although interestingly, analysis of a blue sample of sky area taken from The Prodigal Son feeding swine indicated the smalt had an unusually low cobalt and high silicate content. Suggesting Murillo originally selected a poor quality smalt that would have been low in cost and grey in appearance due to the limited cobalt content. Although cost would have played a significant role in Murillo’s choice, he may also have selected this pigment for its specific colour, as it provided him with a third blue pigment that was different in tonality to ultramarine or azurite.

EDX analysis confirmed that Murillo added calcite to his pigments to increase the fluidity of his paint without altering colour. A sample taken from the tablecloth in The Prodigal Son receiving his portion (Fig 8) contains traces of microfossils in a calcium carbonate layer that was applied as a fixative to adhere a red lake paint-layer to. This is highly unusual as aluminium sulphate was typically used as a fixative for red lake pigments during this period, whilst calcareous fossil remains are more characteristic of 14th and 15th-century Flemish painting and not of the 17th-century Spanish school.

Scientific analysis of the series has allowed us to see the hand of the artist, which has revealed the exquisite details of Murillo’s working process and his extraordinary handling of paint. Conservation on the series is ongoing with project completion aimed for 2014. Treatment of The Prodigal Son feeding swine is currently underway while cleaning and retouching of The Prodigal Son driven out, the first work in the series to be conserved (Fig 4), has resulted in a striking change of balance to the painting allowing a clearer interpretation of the Spanish master’s magnificent bold and energetic brushwork.

Images courtesy the National Gallery of Ireland. Photography © National Gallery of Ireland
Thanks to Simone Mancini, Head of Conservation at the National Gallery, for his perceptive involvement throughout the research and conservation carried
out on the Prodigal Son series.
Muirne Lydon is currently conserving The Prodigal Son series by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo at the National Gallery of Ireland.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 29, No 1, 2012

1 Barry, C., ‘Looking at Murillo’s technique’ in Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1882): Paintings from American Collections, exh. cat., Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York (2002) 75 – 89; Tomlinson H., et al ‘Murillo’s Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bathesda: an introduction to the artist’s late painting technique’ The National Gallery Technical Bulletin 30th Anniversary, Archetype Publications (2011) 173 – 179.
2 Observation made by Walter G. Buchholz in a letter to Sir Alfred Beit, dated 26 September 1969, in the archive of the Gallery.
3 Mulcahy R., Spanish Paintings in The National Gallery of Ireland: a complete catalogue (1988) 47.
4 Dorival D.,‘Callot mod√®le de Murillo’ La Revue des Arts, no 2 (1951) 94 – 101.
5 The oil sketches include The Prodigal Son receiving his portion (P.997), The Departure of the Prodigal Son (P.998), The Prodigal Son Feasting (P.99), The Prodigal Son
Feeding Swine (P.1000) and measure 27 x 34 cm.
6 Delores Gayo and Maite Jover of the Prado Museum’s Restoration and Scientific Department undertook the analysis discussed in this article through the ARCHLAB facility of the CHARISMA project. See
7 Pruitt S. L. S., Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1882): Paintings from American Collections, exh. cat., Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York (2002) 144.

More from the Spring 2012 edition

Shopping cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping