We are grateful to Professor Enrique Valdivieso of the University of Seville, who, in a letter dated 20 March 2006, confirmed the attribution to Murillo of this rare nocturnal scene, on the basis of photographs.
Born in Seville in 1617, Murillo is thought to have trained there in the studio of Juan del Castillo, earning his first important commission to paint a series of eleven canvases for the cloister of the convent of San Francisco. In those works he blended the influence of the painting of Francisco de Herrera with the naturalism and tenebrism of the work of Zurbarán. In April 1658, he is recorded as being in Madrid for several months, where he was able to see the royal and aristocratic collections, studying in particular works by Rubens, Van Dyck and the Venetian Cinquecento masters. These artists were to have a strong influence on his subsequent work: his monumental Birth of the Virgin of just two years later, painted for the Capilla de la Concepción in Seville Cathedral (now in the Louvre, Paris) shows how Murillo had absorbed the compositional grandeur and rich colouring of Venetian art. It is to this period, circa 1660, that Valdivieso dates the present work, noting that: 'el dibujo de esta pintura, su solución compositiva y la aplicación corresponden a un momento próximo a 1660, siendo proprios de este periodo las fisionomías del niño y de sus padres, e igualmente las formas con que describen los ángeles en la parte superior' [the drawing of this picture, and the solution brought to the composition correspond to Murillo's work around 1660, as do the facial types of the Child and His parents as well as the way in which the angels in the upper part are depicted].
After 1668, Murillo produced the masterly second series of nine large pictures for the Church of the Convent of the Capuchinos in Seville, followed by eleven vast canvases for the Hospital de la Caridad (now partly dispersed). In all these works, Murillo never loses his extraordinary ability to portray individual characters and their emotions in a wholly convincing way.
The tenderness and drama of the present scene are simultaneously emphasised by the different light sources: Saint Joseph's face is lit by a candle that his hand shields, the angels in the sky above by a burst of heavenly light, the Shepherds in the Annunciation in the background by the Angel's divine light, and the Christ Child and Mary most luminous of all, apparently lit by a halo of light from Christ's head.
The de Franqueville family inherited the Château de la Muette as well as the present picture from the famous piano manufacturing dynasty of Erard. Originally a royal hunting lodge, it was transformed into a small château for Marguerite de Valois, the first wife of Henri IV and later bequeathed to the Dauphin, later Louis III. It remained in the royal estates and was rebuilt by Gabriel, the form in which it reamined until the early 1920s. At the Revolution it was acquired by the State, sold off by the Assemblée Nationale and was acquired by the Erard family, from whom it passed to the de Franqueville.