I’ve looked at a lot of paintings since I started the Culture Project. Some have pleased me, some have challenged me, and some have confused me. One or two have offended or disgusted me, which was probably the point. But this one makes me smile.
It’s a Baroque work by the Spanish artist Bartolome Esteban Murillo, painted around 1655-60 and now held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Murillo never clarified what he ‘meant’ by this painting, or even whether he ‘meant’ anything at all. The original title was ‘Las Gallegas’ (The Galician Women), and as this poor province in northwestern Spain was known at the time for prostitution some have theorised that the women are prostitutes. But there are no specific symbols of prostitution in the painting, and there is a fresh innocence to the young girl’s face which makes me think ‘sweet kid’ rather than ‘worldly woman’.
The older woman, however, who may be the girl’s duenna (a kind of nurse/maid/chaperone) – a third title is ‘Girl and her Duenna’ – is most definitely a woman of the world. Whatever makes the girl smile is cracking her up on a whole different level. And whereas the girl is innocent enough to display her amusement openly the Duenna conceals her mirth behind her shawl, which apparently was the custom at the time.
Murillo also never gave any indication of what the women were looking at, which means I’m free to imagine. My personal theory is that it’s boys: youths just a bit older than the girl showing off in an effort to impress her. She’s smiling because she’s entertained by their antics and flattered by the attention. The duenna is laughing because she sees what idiots they are, and possibly also recognises the hopefully-harmless folly of her charge in looking no further than the outward appearance of her would-be suitors.
What do you think? What’s making these two women smile?