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Technique spans time

Salvador Salort-Pons, Detroit Institute of Arts executive director of collection strategies and information and curator of European paintings, is blissful about the successful conservation of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's, "The Infant Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness." The 17th century painting is in the museum's baroque gallery. photo by Brad Lindberg.

February 27, 2014
THE DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS — Two paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts bridge centuries and cultures for the single purpose of engaging audiences.

One painting, "The Infant Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness," is by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, a Spaniard.

The other, "The Nut Gatherers," is by William Adolph Bouguereau, of France.

The former dates to about 1670; the later more than 200 years later.

One is a religious image, the other is secular.

"Infant Saint" debuted last week on a five-year loan from Meadowbrook Hall.

"Nut Gatherers," owned by the DIA, is nearly iconic in its popularity among patrons.

Yet, both paintings share a composition technique intended to invite viewers. The main images in both works appear nearly life-size from low perspectives.

Bouguereau depicts two young girls from ground level, thereby placing the viewer there, too.

The vantage point "almost invites us, as viewers, to sit down with them. This viewpoint pulls us into their world," according to an exhibit label accompanying the painting. Murillo, an orphan and the eventual father as of nine children, does the same thing with his cheery infant sitting next to a lamb near an opening in the woods.

DIA curators reinforced this technique in Murillo's "Infant"by hanging it slightly above eye level, its likely placement in a chapel.

"In front of this painting, a Christian or Catholic would kneel down and pray," said Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA executive director of collection strategies and information and curator of European paintings. "The infant Jesus is looking to us almost in the position from which he was conceived."

Similarities extend to settings.

In both paintings, the figures are placed near a clearing in the woods, with sunlight and blue sky beyond reinforcing a sense of optimism.

The essence of both paintings is their innocence, although Murillo's conveys a religious context.

While the bare-footed nut gatherers sit on the forest floor gathering nuts, the infant St. John the Baptist looks outward from the canvas and, at the same time, points to the lamb.

"The lamb represents the sacrifice," Salort-Pons said. "The lamb of sacrifice is the allegory of the crucifixion of Jesus. St. John the Baptist is looking to us and telling us this is the lamb of sacrifice, Jesus."

"The Infant" hung anonymously at Meadowbrook Hall until Salort-Pons happened upon it 12 months ago.

In exchange for the DIA conserving the painting, it will hang for five years in the museum's baroque gallery.

"It's a masterpiece, a painting that would be hanging in museums like the National Gallery in London, the Prado (in Madrid) or The Louvre," Salort-Pons said.

In both paintings, children are rendered with loose brush strokes and soft edges, tempering their features.

Murillo's saccharine style fell out of favor with critics during the late 1800s, but began recovering less than a century later.

"Murillo is about sweetness with a little bit of whipped cream," Salort-Pons said. "That is why he became so popular. Nobody had done that before he did it."

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