The Flower Girl
The identity of the young sitter, celebrated for her elusive half smile, has been the subject of much discussion since the 18th century - she has been variously described as a personification of spring, a flower seller, a gipsy girl and even a courtesan. An x-ray of the painting, however, reveals a completely different image beneath the paint surface. When the painting is positioned on its side, the bottom half of the figure of the Virgin Mary is visible, a composition that corresponds almost exactly to another painting by Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial now in the Prado, Madrid. This is the first time evidence has been found of Murillo recycling his canvases, and while the Prado painting was not dated by the artist, we know from surviving drawings that Murillo was exploring variants of this composition from 1664 onwards. The warm, diffused lighting and the fluid, intuitive handling of the paint, particularly in the slashed sleeves of the girl’s dress, are characteristic of Murillo's 'soft focus' style when he was at the height of his career, suggesting a date of c.1665-70.
This period was to be a significant marker in Murillo's life, as in 1671 his only daughter, Francisca María (1655-1710), who was born deaf, entered a Dominican convent, taking the name Sister Francisca María de Santa Rosa after Saint Rose of Lima, the very first South American saint, who was beatified in 1667 and canonised in 1671. Given these connections, it is tempting to view this painting as a portrait of the painter's daughter in the guise of a flower girl, whose roses are symbolic of the new name she has taken, thus combining in a single image his own religious and familial references, along with allusions to hope and new beginnings that accompany representations of Spring.