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Three Boys

The Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82) depicts a seated pair of impoverished children who are about to commence a humble meal. The right-hand child closely guards a pie, covering it with an outstretched hand. Their clothes are dirty, torn and ill-fitting, and their feet are shoeless and soiled. In his brown cropped jacket and sturdy, laced shoes, the standing figure is relatively well-dressed. He has perhaps just filled the children’s small ceramic water jug, laid out in the foreground, and extends his hand to receive payment, or perhaps a slice of pie. With an unsettling grin, the left-hand child furtively reaches into the standing boy’s pocket in search of coins. By the nineteenth century, the painting's title – 'The Poor Black Boy’ – implied that the standing boy was begging for charity, according to racialised tropes of the time. However, it is the seated boys who may have resorted to stealing the pie and who are in fact seeking charity. Recent research has proposed that the standing figure is likely a water-seller of African heritage – either enslaved or freed. Water-selling was a common trade on the streets of seventeenth-century Seville. Murillo would have encountered people of many different heritages during day-to-day life in that city and, in the complex multiracial world of the Spanish Empire, enslavement was common. It has often been thought that the model for the standing figure was an enslaved child in Murillo’s own household, Tomás de Santiago – who would have been around fourteen when this painting was made. Tomás was the son of Juana de Santiago (b. 1658), whom Murillo later freed in 1676. It has been suggested that the seated boys are based on Murillo's own sons, Gabriel (b.1657) and Gaspar (b.1661).

Although Murillo takes the reality of poverty as his cue, his artistic eye and sense of composition act as filters – this is by no means a realistic portrayal of vagrant life in seventeenth-century Seville. This painting is unique in Murillo's oeuvre in that he appears to have changed his mind as he painted, a rare occurrence for an artist who is thought to have carefully planned and drawn out most of his compositions. Close examination of x-ray images reveals an earlier composition where Murillo depicted the seated boy with a smirking expression on his face, his teeth bared mockingly. Instead of groping in the standing boy’s pocket, he defiantly pulls his hand away from the pie. The subsequent changes to the composition shed light not only on Murillo’s working methods but also on the kind of poverty he wished to portray; he may have found the expression and gesture of the boy too physical and decided to subtly tone down the dynamics of the narrative.

Currently on display

Bartolomé Estéban Murillo
Gallery 1
168.3 x 109.8 cm
Oil on canvas
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
Accession number
Adopted by Allied-Lyons Plc, 1992