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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - Two Boys Eating a Melon and Grapes

by Julia Kynast

The multifaceted depiction and staging of poverty is considered a popular theme of Baroque genre painting . The Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, who was born in Seville, also took up this theme. In choosing his subjects, he may have been inspired by the artists Jusepe de Ribera, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and the depictions of beggars by the Dutch genre painters based in Rome, the Bamboccianti. The "Grape and Melon Eaters" are part of a whole series of works by the artist, in which he depicted begging and vagabond children. Since these paintings were extremely popular, especially with foreign merchants, they are now found almost exclusively outside Spain. Thus, the Grape Eaters also appeared as early as 1691 in the estate of a wealthy Antwerp citizen.

In a markedly realistic manner, two boys are depicted at close range, occupying almost the entire pictorial space. In a dark corner, in sparse surroundings, one of the two squats on the floor, the other on a wooden stool. Chewing with relish, they consume the juicy fruits of a fruit basket bulging with grapes, while exchanging a meaningful glance.

On the lap of the boy in the right half of the picture lies a magnificent yellow honeydew melon. With a knife in his hand, he has already cut out two narrow pieces for consumption. The boy's clothing is heavily soiled and torn. It barely covers their bare chests and in some places exposes the more gray than white undergarment. Yet despite the ruthless display of their outward appearance, they appear well-fed. These are brief moments of happiness that the painter shows from the lives of the Andalusian street boys, although the scene seems strongly idealized. An impression that is reinforced by the fact that the remains of shells and small branches left over from the feast, which are like a reminder at the feet of the boys, point to the transience of the moment. The same applies to two small flies that have settled on the body of the melon.

Depictions of arms like this were already hotly debated among contemporaries. The Italian painter and poet Salvator Rosa, for example, criticized both the artists and their wealthy buyer class in his painting treatise "La Pittura" as early as the mid-17th century. The sitters, on the other hand, mostly remained in their misery.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - Two Boys Eating a Melon and Grapes

Oil on canvas, c. 1645/46, 145.9 x 103.6 cm, Alte Pinakothek in Munich


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