Both Prof. Enrique Valdivieso and the late, great Diego Angulo Iñiguez concur on a dating of this dramatic large canvas to circa
1655-60. At precisely this time Murillo made his first lengthy sojourn in Madrid where he encountered the extensive royal and aristocratic collections. Here he studied particularly closely the work of Rubens, Van Dyck and the Venetian colourists of the Cinquecento
, all of whom would have a marked influence on his work for several years to come, an influence that can be seen nowhere better than in his monumental Birth of the Virgin
painted for the Capilla de la Concepción in Seville in 1660.1
With the latter the present painting shares not just the same palette and the drama of a nocturnal setting, but also the extraordinary multiple light source. Where, in the Birth of the Virgin
, light illuminates Christ’s nurses and the attendant angels from His halo, a separate smaller group of figures from a fire, the Virgin from a door stood ajar and the hovering putti
from a celestial source, so here Christ, His mother and the ox are bathed in the golden light from His halo, Joseph is subtly illuminated by the candle that he shields from the draught, the shepherds in the distance by the Angel’s divine light and the putti
, again, by a distant celestial source. Thus a series of episodes are treated, in both pictures creating a narrative that here juxtaposes the drama of the Annunciation to the shepherds
in the distance with the tenderness of the familial scene of adoration in the foreground.
Other than the composition, further comparison with the Birth
and other works from c. 1655-60 may be made between the facial types of Christ and His parents and the means of depicting the hovering putti
. As Valdivieso has previously pointed out, the preparatory underdrawing of the figures is consistent with other large-scale works from this date.2
The Château de la Muette is situated on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne near the Porte de la Muette. It started life as a royal hunting lodge but was transformed into a palace by Henri II for his favourite daughter Marguerite de Valois. It was subsequently reconstructed by Louis XV in the 18th century and used by him to entertain his mistresses, including Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry. In post-revolutionary France the château became state property and was split into two wings. One wing and most of the grounds were purchased in 1820 by Sébastian Erard, a manufacturer of pianos used by Chopin and Liszt. The château and the present painting were subsequently inherited by the De Franqueville family who held onto both until the early twentieth century.
1. Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. no. MI202; see Valdivieso, 2010, pp. 352-3, cat. no. 127, reproduced.
2. In a letter dated 20 March 2006 to the previous owner. See 2007 sale catalogue.