Depictions of the poor are common in seventeenth-century Spain, nowhere more so than in Seville, where Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–82), the artist’s close contemporary and colleague, produced some of the most sublimely evocative treatments. Two notable examples are his Young Beggar (1645–50, Louvre, Paris) and his Boys Playing Dice (1675–80, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Generally commissioned by wealthy patrons, these works, which can be read alongside paintings such as Núñez de Villavicencio’s Two Boys Feeding a Beggar (c. 1665, Leicester Museum & Art Gallery), serve as mechanisms for offering the haves an insight into the lives of the have-nots, often triggering expressions of empathy and Christian piety.
Yet some paintings encode a range of more sinister meanings. The vineyard, a ubiquitous symbol in Iberian popular culture, has often been regarded, particularly by young girls, as a place of sexualized excitement, but also occasionally, fear and foreboding. The association, which stems ultimately from Judges 21:20–21, where the unmarried sons of the Tribe of Benjamin hide in vineyards so as to abduct the young women of Shiloh, was popularized in contemporary art and literature with reference to the tradition of the locus amoenus—the verdant green glade, which, isolated from the scrutiny of parental protection, doubled up as a meeting place for young lovers. Here, free to revel in their sexuality, the young are envisioned as a part of nature, and like the vines themselves, they become all but impossible to control.
The culmination of this tradition is most evident in the female-voice lyric, where the speakers, having arranged to meet their lovers, often find themselves accosted by forces of unwelcomed sexual aggression. In some, the tone is wistfully confessional, outlining how, while in search of excitement, they unwittingly became victims of sexualized coercion or even rape. In others, the emphasis falls on stereotypes of dermal transformation, with the once fair-skinned maiden returning home from the encounter with a swarthy appearance indicative of her now sexually experienced state.
The key to understanding how Núñez de Villavicencio’s painting exploits this most Spanish of traditions lies in appreciating his careful manipulation of diagonals. Transfixed by the dog that tears aggressively at the hem of her skirts, the girl on the left stares outwards along the length of her outstretched arm, her hands extended in apprehension. The relative whiteness of her skin, which traditionally connotes virginity, combined with the violent hoisting upwards of her skirts and the blouse that appears to be on the point of falling away from her breasts, suggests that she is on the verge of a sexual encounter—whether consensual or not. The dog serves in this sense both as a literal object and as a reference to predatory male attention.
Her companion, in contrast, points along the opposing diagonal axis towards the fruit in the lower left-hand corner, producing a stylized crossing-over effect known as a chiasmus. Intimating that she has long since gained the experience that her companion lacks, the darkness of her skin evokes traditional stereotypes of carnal knowledge while her posture plays on the notion of woman-as-article-for-consumption, forging a direct relationship between the shattered fruit and her friend’s soon-to-be-lost virginity. The expression on her face, which hints at her now unmarriageable status and the attendant consolations of alcohol, characterizes her as an illustration of what her friend will soon become. It becomes possible as a result to relate the painting to the morality tradition, and in particular, the oft-quoted adage, ‘such as I am now, so shall you be; what you are now, so once was I’.
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Two Girls Playing in a Vineyard with a Small Dog.
Pedro Núñez de Villavicencio (Seville, 1644 – Madrid, 1695).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
165 x 122 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
Jonathan Ruffer, acquired 2018.
The Spanish Gallery, Bishop Auckland.
Roberto González Ramos, Pedro Núñez de Villavicencio: caballero pintor, Sección Arte, 1A.32 (Sevilla: Diputación Provincial, 1999);
Jonathan Ruffer, Adam Lowe, & Charlotte Skene Catling, The Spanish Gallery: A Guide to the Works of Art (Bishop Auckland: The Spanish Gallery, 2021), p. 50.