We are grateful to Professor A. Pérez Sánchez and Professor Enrique Valdivieso for confirming the attribution having examined the picture in the original.
This picture relates to another of the same subject by the artist in the Stirling-Maxwell collection, Pollok House, Glasgow. The latter (167.5 x 112 cm.) is of upright format and shows most notable differences in the pose of the Infant Saint, who is shown in profile in the Glasgow picture, as well as minor differences in the draperies of the Virgin and Child. A pen and ink drawing by Murillo (fig. 1) in the British Museum (1873-6-14-212), shows on the right side two studies for a kneeling Infant Saint John the Baptist holding a bird. The pose and attitude of the Saint, with his head turned slightly so that both eyes are just visible, corresponds much more closely with the present picture than that at Pollok, and is thus, as Brown indicates (loc. cit.), a preparatory sketch for the present picture. Brown proposes a dating for the latter of circa 1650-55, which he says is further confirmed by the stylistic relationship of the British Museum drawing with a preparatory drawing for an oil on canvas of Saint Isidore, that was donated to Seville Cathedral in 1655.
By this time, Murillo had already established himself as at least as sought-after an artist as Francisco Zurbarán, who was also in Seville at the time. His first important commission had been in 1645 for the series of eleven canvases for the small cloister of the convent of San Francisco. Here the influence of Zurbarán can be seen in the naturalism and tenebrism displayed in some of the pictures. Others, such as the Death of Saint Clare, show a lighter, more luminous technique, with softer shades of colour.
It was in these years that Murillo developed his interest in painting children, often in low-life settings, executed with a startling realism that seems often to echo more the work of Velázquez than that of Zurbarán: Boy delousing himself, in the Louvre, was the first of this group. The Holy Family with a Little Bird now in the Prado, of circa 1649-50 is a highly personal example of the representation of a religious subject through an everyday domestic scene, and in its intimacy and naturalism comes close to the present picture.
The 1650s saw Murillo at the height of his success in Seville and in those years he received a stream of major commissions. The present picture dates from that period. The extraordinary attention to detail that Murillo brings in his rendition of the crisp texture of the material of the Virgin's drapery adds a strong sense of realism and immediacy to this picture. It is combined with a feeling of tenderness that emanates from an interplay of gentle glances: the Virgin towards Her Child, the Child towards the finch, as He reaches back with His left arm to seek protection from His Mother, and the affectionate look given by the Infant Baptist towards the Child.