When the 17th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was in his 30s he imagined what he might look like if his forgotten tomb was discovered in hundreds of years.
In the first of his two surviving self-portraits, done in 1650–55 and now owned by New York’s Frick collection, Murillo gazes out from an oval picture that is held within a mouldering grey stone slab. This piece of timeworn rock rests at an angle, as an old monument dug out of a crowded graveyard might lean against the cemetery wall.
It was an age when life expectancies were short, plagues were frequent, and it seemed wise to keep your doom in sight. Murillo lived most of his life in Seville and his art is profoundly Catholic – yet the same obsession with mortality can found in 17th-century art throughout Europe. When the English poet John Donne was dying in 1631 he posed for a portrait in his funeral shroud. When plague was ravaging Naples in 1656, the painter Salvator Rosa created his terrifying canvas Human Fragility in which Death makes a baby sign away its future.
Twenty years later, Murillo portrayed himself again, getting older and closer to the tomb he once again suggests by enclosing his image in stone. Yet he seems more confident now of his enduring fame. Where the earlier picture showed him as a forgotten fragment, this painting, owned by the National Gallery, rests his image on a shelf where the signs of his art – a drawing, dividers, a ruler, a paint-smeared palette and brushes – are proudly displayed. In a subtle but brilliantly effective assertion of the life-giving power of art, Murillo puts his hand on the stone frame so that it seems to emerge into the real world. Colour triumphs over greyness, as bright pigments shine from his palette.