This exhibition explores the patronal relationship between the 17th century Spanish artist Bartolome Esteban Murillo and Justino de Neve, a canon of Seville Cathedral. 

The enfilade at the gallery was converted to evoke the atmosphere of a Sevillian church, so that we get a sense of the original siting of the paintings. The main gallery contains only lunettes painted for the restoration of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca, positioned high above the viewer's head. The low lighting, dark walls, minimal labelling and the sparse hanging do work to convey the sense of an interior of a Roman Catholic church although, of course, the paintings are not as high as they would have been in the church, since the gallery's walls are naturally much lower. Nevertheless, it is a commendable attempt to reproduce the original space these sizable paintings would have been viewed in, to gain an understanding of their impact on the congregation. 

They are beautiful paintings, still retaining their vibrancy and power: Faith, or the Church
(1664–65), one of the smaller lunettes, is quite dazzling in colour and looks incredibly fresh after its recent cleaning. The main gallery culminates in the stunning altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception of the Venerables Sacerdotes (1660–65), as if at the end of the church nave. The altarpiece is displayed in its original frame, created when it formed the centrepiece for celebrations of the church restoration. It is quite poignant that these two pieces, which fit together so naturally, will be separated again once the exhibition is over.

An anteroom to the main gallery contains items from the collection of Justino de Neve; it included Morillo's portraits of artist and patron suggesting a deeply-held mutual respect. There is a contrast between the two that says much about their respective social positions: De Neve's portrait, typically, shows off the status of the sitter, the prayer book indicating his vocation, with the gilt clock subtly underlining his wealth. Murillo's portrait focuses on his profession, the inclusion of framing within the portrait making reference to his trade with a witty throwaway gesture of setting his hand outside the frame to show his absolute mastery of representation.

In another anteroom are the paintings Murillo created for the Hospital of the Venerables Sacerdotes, founded by de Neve. The main painting is The Baptism of Christ (1667-68), and Murillo's interest in naturalism can be seen here in the highly-defined skeletal and muscular details of Christ and John's bodies. This room also includes the Penitent St Peter
(c1670), recently discovered in a private collection and receiving its first public airing in this exhibition.

John Ruskin famously fumed about the paintings Murillo is mostly known for at Dulwich, the Beggar Boy paintings, considering them overly sentimental – a notion that clearly hadn't concerned Gainsborough, who collected Morillo, and whose painting The Cottage Girl (1785) has been hung with the Beggar Boy paintings Invitation to a Game of Argolla (1665–70) and The Three Boys (1670). 

Traditionally considered a pair, extensive restoration work has revealed the paintings to have had quite different preparation grounds, and that they are therefore actually unlikely to have been painted with the intention of forming a set. There is undoubtedly a certain element of kitsch to them: they seem simply too idealistic for their apparent circumstances, suggesting to me something of the contrived characterisations found in the buoyant personifications of Spring (1665–70) and Summer (1660–65), among de Neve's collection. 

In the final room, the curators have taken all the paintings originally attributed to Morillo when purchased, but which attributions have now been discredited, and discuss their more likely origins. A highly interesting insertion, this room tells the viewer much about the changing notions of how received knowledge of an artist changes and develops with research. To modern eyes, and within the contexts of this exhibition, images such as The Infant Christ as the Good Shepherd (18th century), from a follower of Morillo, and Jacob and Rachel at the Well (1680), from Morillo's circle, might appear quite distant from the accepted originals, but when being traded in a period of no photography, let alone digital imagery, it is clear how such mistakes may have occured.

Overall, it is a great exhibition, and although it might strike the viewer as being spare in content, the curators have struck a good balance of the differing aspects of Murillo's work, spanning the underlying support of de Neve in producing shimmering religious masterpieces to the gentle theatricality of the Beggar Boys and the "personifications" of Spring and Summer.

Murillo and de Neve, at Dulwich Picture GalleryRita Fennell reviews Murillo & Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.4