• The Young Beggar

The Young Beggar

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The Young Beggar (Urchin Hunting for Fleas)
Artist: Bartolome Esteban Murillo
Oil painting on canvas; Size: 137x115cm; Louvre, Paris.

Murillo is also famous for his genre works with ragged children, probably using his own family and those of his friends as models. This painting work, dating from around 1648, is the earliest example of its kind, and differs from the later ones in the sense of melancholy and neglect that it conveys. The genre scene, considered a mere copy of reality, occupied one of the lowest rungs in the hierarchy of oil painting. Caravaggio and Velazquez had treated it with the gravity that was usually reserved for history painting, representing the figures on a larger scale, while Murillo paid less attention to the still life - the objects on the ground - and more to the figure itself. The artist may have seen similar paintings by followers of Caravaggio in collections in Seville, but these generally depicted more disquieting subjects than children eating grapes or playing dice. Such themes were also to be found in Spanish literature, in the picaresque novels, but were treated with a cruel sense of humor and a moralizing intent that are absent from Murillo's works. But the world evoked is the same and the jug of water in the painting is a reminder of the 1554 novel Lazarillo de Tormes, in which the hero works as a water carrier in Seville for four years. In the 17th century Flemish paintings of mothers ridding their children of fleas were common. The presence of fleas was regarded as a good sign and one that, according to tradition, indicated the children were in good health: the parasites would not have attacked them if they had been sickly. So this painting emphasizes the solitude of the urchin, poor but dignified, with his dirty feet left discreetly in shadow. The kingdom of heaven belonged to those who accepted God with the faith of a child. In a religion vision of the poor as the image of Christ, the combination of childhood and poverty constituted a double measure of blessing and a strong incentive to help the needy.

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