In a sort of dungeon-like loft, a ragged child is squatting. The violent light of the sun which passes by the window brightens suddenly the sordid ragged, patched, shredded of the little beggar. His bare legs rest on the ground where shrimp debris hangs. Close to him, a bag of coarse straw is overthrown and from its opening escape some apples which will probably make up its pittance with the water of the sandstone jar placed nearby. For the moment, the child does not seem to worry about food; he is very attentive in pursuing, in the folds of his shirt, the vermin and the parasites which flourish there in freedom.
This vigorous picture, so intensely realistic and so solidly executed, shows one of the most interesting sides of Murillo’s talent. What! Is it the same artist who painted these adorable virgins, these chubby angels, and that lousy villain who has been stranded in an infested room? Is it on the same pallet, loaded with the most tender roses and the most sweet blues, that he has found these tones, powerful, of a color so hot and so vibrant? How could this easy brush, accustomed to donning the celestial personages with a sort of soppiness, be able to consolidate itself until these sharp, vigorous lines remind one of Zurbaran and Ribera?
This curious duality testifies eloquently that Murillo had made a personal aesthetic for his religious painting, in keeping with the manner in which, as a fervent Catholic with a tender soul, he understood the glorious inhabitants of heaven. Born in a country of vibrant light in Seville, it seemed impossible to him that the Virgin, the angels and the saints could have those severe faces that a sad and dark faith lent them uniformly in Spain. In his eyes, the stay of the blessed must spark more fires than the skies of Andalusia and show even more splendor than the Alcazar or the Generalife.
But when he came down from his scaffolding and found himself in the streets of the city, in the land of Spanish life, his eye as observer and artist was solicited at every step by purely human scenes of which he grasped the picturesque and real side. It was in the narrow streets of the Andalusian city, where his whole existence was, that he certainly met this beggar, of whom Spain still possesses so many and so remarkable models today.
In contact with Velazquez, whom he had seen at Madrid, he had learned that nothing was unworthy of an artist’s brush; he had seen him paint, along with kings and infants, dwarves, buffoons, and the worst specimens of humanity. To his example, he judged that he could in turn, without derogating or wronging the Virgin, abandon himself from time to time to the simple and strong study of the spectacles of nature and translate them faithfully into veritable pages. and without primer. And so Murillo, the most delightful performer of smiling Madonnas and laughing angels, has manifested itself at times as the most precise of realist painters. With the same ease he wove in the azure atmosphere diaphanous and bathed in clarity, he was pleased with oppositions of light and shade and he treated the difficult art of chiaroscuro with a mastery that Rembrandt himself would not have disavowed. In this very special kind, the Young Beggar that we give here, can be classified as a masterpiece. This is the opinion of Théophile Gautier, excellent judge in the matter: “A marvel of life, light and color! he writes about this painting. In his art Spain did not have the disdain of ugliness, misery and uncleanliness. Under this rag, under this deformity, under this filth, there is a soul; this beggar is a Christian, this beggar devoured by vermin may go “in glory”, so he deserves to be painted just as well as a king, and here is Murillo who, on his palette of rose, lily and Azure, charged by the angels to paint the Virgin, knows how to find fawn tones, golden browns, hot bitumens when he has a Beggar to represent. At the foot of a wall struck by a ray of sunshine, he shows us a lousy youth opening his ragged shirt and making an abundant hunt. Don Diego Velazquez de Silva, the great lord painter, was no more disgusted than Murillo. He left kings, queens, infants and ministers very well to paint drunkards, dwarves, philosophers, gypsies, and even the phenomena of the fair, and these are not his least beautiful paintings.”
The Young Beggar passed through many hands. He belonged successively to Gaignat and Sainte-Foy. It was finally bought by Louis XVI, for 2,400 livres, and, after the Revolution, placed in the Louvre where we see it today.
Height: 1.37 – Width: 1.15 – Life-size figure.