Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
Anonym (spanisch, 17. Jh.), ehemals zugeschrieben
Putto in einer Nische mit einem Palmenzweig, um 1655
This drawing depicts a cherub standing on a pedestal in a niche. Holding a palm branch in his left hand, he raises his right and gazes toward the heavens. It might be a preparatory sketch for a sculpture project, such as a polychrome woodcarving intended to separate sections of an altarpiece. In that case, the angel's palm branch would symbolize the martyrdom of the saint to whom the entire altar was dedicated. Until now, this exceptionally fine drawing has been considered an anonymous seventeenth-century work, but the child model and characteristic technique, which its author handles with uncommon mastery, clearly relate it to Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, to whom it is assigned in the work's inscription. The relatively small number of drawings by this artist has prevented this work from being attributed to him until now. Much has yet to be learned about the sort of drawings he may have used, as well as which techniques he employed for different purposes. Here, the child's naturalism reflects Murillo's clear knowledge of classical sculpture, which he would have known from his youth through collections in Seville. Moreover, his familiarity with the proportions and postures of classical statuary could also be related to the wealth of Renaissance works in Andalusia. The drawing was initially laid out in black pencil, which the artist used to render a very fine and visually engaging definition of the figure's contours. Then, he resolved the modeling and shadows with transparent and golden-bistre washes that also served to define the angels body, bringing this work its stunning luminosity. Finally, with great sensitivity, he confidently added economic touches of black pencil to define certain profiles, such as the cherub's right thigh and knee. Pen and somewhat darker ink were used to define the right wrist and the outline of the left arm so that they stand out against the shadow of the niche. Murillo's precise handling of wash is manifest in his definition of the child's body and the luminous form and texture of the palm branch.
The child model, especially his face, corresponds to an early period in Murillo's career and can be dated to around 1655, when he was painting Saint Isidore and Saint Leander for the vestry of Seville Cathedral. In fact, this child Ṇ at the British Museum in London (inv. 1873,0614.215). There, too, Murillo used highly transparent washes over a black-pencil sketch of the figure, obtaining the same effect. Despite the difference between the cherub's infant physiognomy and that of the young saint, their heads are quite similar. They share the same model of beauty and the same manner of depicting the eyes, nose, and mouth.
This drawing also relates to other works from that period, including The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (inv. 1946,0713.1157), also at the British Museum and technically very similar. The present work should therefore be dated to around the same time, from the mid-1650s, when Murillo was already considered the most important artist in Seville, and when he had acquired considerable mastery in his drawings. Nevertheless, none of Murillo's known commissions from those years can be related to this cherub with a martyr's palm. The inscription that attributes it to him has handwriting characteristic of the seventeenth or eighteenth century and seems to be by the same hand as an inscription appearing on another original by Murillo from that period: Study for Four Saints, in a private collection on loan to The Hispanic Society of America in New York. With its new attribution, this Cherub Standing in a Niche may serve as an example for attributing other similar works to Murillo, as their style and technique are uncommon among those that have survived.
Manuela B. Mena Marqués
1 Mena Marqués 2014, no. 21.
2 Ibid., no. 10.