Looking at pictures teaches you to live with uncertainty. Yes, there are other ways to learn the lesson. (Living through a pandemic will do it.) But if you want to combine an apprehension of strangeness and unknowability with mental absorption and sensual pleasure, nothing beats looking at art.
No one quite knows what’s going on in this painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. And yet how hard it is to look away. Few paintings seem as alive, as switched on, as attentive to you. No wonder “Four Figures on a Step” is one of the most popular works at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
Paintings often put you in the position of a voyeur, but here, that’s emphatically reversed. No fewer than three gazes, each with completely different expressions, lock onto yours as you turn to face it. The effect is electrifying — like walking innocently past a huddle of people who all at once begin to laugh.
Who are they? What do they want? What were they talking about before you showed up? Suddenly, you realize, there is no such thing as innocence: Instead, we have irony, inflection and innuendo.
Murillo (1617-1682) was one of the leading painters of the Spanish baroque. Until midway through the 19th century, he enjoyed a level of popularity and acclaim that outstripped even Diego Velázquez. He painted religious subjects with real aplomb, but he is equally well-known for his genre pictures of street urchins, flower girls and beggars.
One of his liveliest, “Two Women at a Window,” at the National Gallery of Art, confronts the viewer with similarly dissonant gazes. It seems to portray two upper-class women, one younger and smiling coyly; the other older (a chaperone perhaps) and covering her laughing face with her shawl, as was good manners among the aristocracy.
The scene in “Four Figures on a Step” is more down-at-heel. The older woman on the right looks up as if interrupted at her task: inspecting the boy’s head for lice. The trousers of that same boy have a huge tear, leaving part of his backside exposed.
The young man on the left leans forward, his leg propped on a step that helps frame the whole scene, intensifying its immediacy (you feel he could easily step over it and into our space). He smiles with genuine good humor — although who knows whether his laughter is at our expense?
The woman of indeterminate age in the middle, meanwhile, wears one of the most bizarre and arresting expressions in all of European painting: Incredulous? Mocking? Disgusted? Sardonic? It never settles into one thing or another.
And folks, it never will.
In 1830, when this painting first came to America, it was described as a “Spanish family group.” A century later, speculation grew that it depicted Murillo’s own family. That no longer seems credible. Since there’s something sly and a bit lascivious in the picture, it could be a scene of sexual procurement. But it could also be more innocent. Some scholars have even wondered whether it’s an allegory representing the four stages of life.
Your guess is as good as mine. But that in itself is instructive: Great art keeps us in a place where there is no “closure,” and where a principle of portly ambivalence reigns over wan and emaciated certitude. It keeps us in a place that’s like life.
Even in this political season, as we find ourselves embroiled in a fight over the very existence of empirical facts, it’s important that we don’t become dumb literalists or let go of all that art teaches us about the pleasures of a life lived richly in the dark.