The leading religious painter of Seville and a great master of Spain’s golden age, Murillo was one of the most celebrated of all European artists until his reputation was eclipsed by those of Velázquez and El Greco in the late nineteenth century.
Murillo’s rare and unusual genre scenes, which have always enjoyed great popularity, have no real precedent in Spain. His scenes of contemporary street life defy simple interpretation. Four Figures on a Step accosts the viewer, who is insinuated into a scene with an unsettling cast of characters. The young woman beside the smiling young man twists her face into a wink as she lifts a scarf over her head. While this latter gesture had alluded to marital fidelity since classical times, in this context it may instead signal her availability. Some scholars have interpreted the Kimbell picture as a scene of procurement, with the older woman identified as a procuress, the celestina of Spanish picaresque literature, who is often represented as a crone wearing glasses and a headscarf. She protectively cradles the head of a boy whose torn breeches reveal his backside––a detail that had twice been covered with repaint but is now restored to its original state.
On the other hand, the mature woman also resembles the bespectacled characters in Dutch and Flemish genre paintings, among them virtuous women inspecting the heads of children for lice. In these works, which Murillo knew through prints, delousing a child served as a metaphor for cleansing the soul, as well as the body. If not simply a portrayal of the colorful characters to be found in the streets of Seville, Four Figures on a Step may carry an admonitory, moralizing message, urging the viewer to avoid the temptations of worldly pleasures.