Thence by descent.
Murillo treated the subject of the penitent Saint Peter in oil on at least two other occasions.1 The earliest known treatment is a painting dated circa 1650–55 today in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, in which Peter is similarly depicted as here in three-quarter-length, but facing directly towards the viewer, the right side of his face cast in shadow as a powerful light source emanates from the upper left.2 In the Bilbao painting the Saint is similarly dressed in his characteristic blue and yellow robes, accompanied by his attributes of the keys and a large volume of the Holy Scriptures, yet his features are more youthful than in the present work and furthermore, his clasped hands are not raised to beseech forgiveness but rest on his knee, thereby reducing the overall emotional intensity of the scene.
The other treatment of the subject by Murillo is the artist’s masterpiece commissioned in around 1675 by his great friend and patron Justino de Neve (1625–1685), in which Saint Peter is seen in full-length, set within a landscape (see fig. 1). The painting was bequeathed on De Neve’s death in 1685 to the Hospital of the Venerable Priests in Seville and remained there until removed by Maréchal Soult (1769–1851) in 1810, who retained it for his own private collection. Following his death it was sold at auction in Paris in 1852, when it was acquired by a certain Townend of Brighton, remaining in England for over a century and a half until it was sold in 2013 by private treaty sale through Sotheby’s to the Fundación Fondo de Cultura de Sevilla (Focus), whose small but outstanding collection of paintings and sculptures by Sevillian masters (including two works by Velázquez) is today housed in the Hospital of the Venerable Priests, Seville, the very place from which the Penitent Saint Peter was appropriated by the French over two hundred years ago.
Although the figure of Saint Peter is facing the opposite direction, it seems likely that Murillo had in mind the Venerables’ version when painting the present work. In both canvases the Saint is depicted with his hands clasped in a similar fashion, seated on a rocky outcrop, before the entrance to a cave and with a distant landscape beyond. The thick handling of paint and restricted palette are common to both paintings, although here the Saint appears more frail and older in years. It seems probable that the Venerables’ treatment slightly precedes the present work in date, which on stylistic grounds is likely to have been painted circa 1675. A comparison with Francisco de Zurbarán’s somewhat earlier treatment of the subject (circa 1645–50), lot 60 in this sale, reveals Zurbarán to be an artist more interested in the dramatic sculptural forms of Saint Peter, whilst Murillo reveals a greater sense of humanity and heightened emotion. The palpable influence of the naturalism of Ribera, combined with the fluid handling of Murillo make this an image of great strength and beauty.
1 Valdivieso lists another treatment in a private collection, Paris, although on the basis of the published photograph alone, judgment over the attribution should be reserved; see E. Valdivieso, Murillo: Catálogo Razonado de Pinturas, Madrid 2010, no. 361. There is also a drawing of the subject by the artist today in the British Museum, London, which appears to be a prima idea for the Venerables' canvas; see J. Brown, Murillo: Virtuoso Draughtsman, 2012, pp. 206–07, no. 82, reproduced.
2 Deposited by the Provincial Council of Bizkaia after transfer in lieu of tax by BBVA in 2000, for which see Murillo and Justino de Neve; El Arte de la Amistad, exh. cat., Madrid, Museo del Prado (26 June – 30 September 2012), Seville, Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes (11 October 2012 – 20 June 2013), Dublin, National Gallery (6 February – 12 May 2013), p. 138, fig. 65 reproduced.
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