By Rosemary Battles Foy, Nichols House Museum Volunteer Researcher
As Thanksgiving approaches, an untitled work in the Nichols House Museum collection (1961.367) draws our attention to hunger amidst plenty. The painting depicts a peasant boy biting down on either a sausage or carrot, grasping it in his bare right hand, his left hand clutching a chunk of crusty bread. He engages the viewer directly, his teeth visible at mid-bite as if caught by surprise with foodstuffs that he might have just grabbed furtively from the table behind him. This painting is unlike anything else in the Museum’s collection: it is the sole depiction of a child, at 14 x 16 in. it is the smallest oil painting in size, and most importantly, is far from the established grand manner of the rest of the Nichols family artwork. How did it come to be in the collection, and what does this rather odd little painting mean?
Currently hung high on the north wall of the dining room, this painting had originally been displayed in the parlor, according to Rose Nichols’ 1935 household inventory. While that seems a surprising choice of location, it begins to make sense when we learn that the painting was a gift from Lydia N. Raymond. A wealthy art collector who gave several paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lydia Newell Osgood Raymond (1821-1907) inherited the grand Amory-Ticknor House on the corner of Beacon and Park Streets, just around the corner from 55 Mount Vernon Street. Raymond must have been a family friend, so perhaps placing her gift so visibly in the parlor was a way of honoring that friendship. It still bears the paper tag of her ownership on its reverse side, inscribed in pen and ink “Lydia N. Raymond #42”.
As with so many objects collected at the Nichols House Museum, the family ascribed meaning to it because of its associations with meaningful people and movements, in this case, the collector and friend Lydia Raymond, but also the work’s debt to the Spanish artist of the Baroque period Bartoloméo Estéban Murillo (1617-1682). In his inventory, Arthur noted that the work was “after Murillo”, along with its Raymond provenance. The Nichols visited Spain several times, and Rose is known to have admired its material culture. It is an anonymous work likely painted in the 19th century in Murillo’s soft, celebrated late manner. Murillo’s empathic depiction of street life was widely copied by successive generations, replete with beggar boys and the dispossessed, finding particular favor with Victorian tastes. This genre, known as bodegónes, frequently features food, along with humble street vendors and peasants that roamed the streets of Murillo’s native Seville.
The museum’s piece lacks the dramatic contrasts in light and shade that Murillo employed. The Louvre’s The Young Beggar/The Lice-Ridden Boy of ca. 1645-50 by the artist packs a visual punch by casting a beam of light on the boy, who is curled up on the floor in a dark corner (see image below). It was a device that other artists of the Baroque period, such as Velázquez, Zurbarán, and Caravaggio, employed for dramatic effect. This softer handling of light and tonality reveals not only a less-skilled hand at work–the colors are muddier and the draftsmanship not as adept–but also a different century’s aesthetic values. Most importantly, this lack of dramatic focus tells us something important about this painting and its history.
The Nichols House Museum’s painting is likely a fragment of a larger work whose location remains unknown. Notice that there is a man in the lower left foreground, leaning forward to his left as if in conversation with someone else outside of our field of vision. His balding head and partially shadowed face are executed with care, as is his thick brown jacket, relieved by a sliver of light falling on the upturned collar. He has nearly been cropped out of the picture. In cutting the work in this way, it would seem that the objective was to excise the “Spanish peasant boy” (as Arthur describes him) from the larger depiction of well-dressed adults conversing. Alternatively, perhaps it was the only salvageable bit in an otherwise badly damaged painting. We will never know why this artwork was mutilated, or if that had anything to do with Mrs. Raymond’s decision to give it away.
Murillo and his followers often portrayed beggars and the wealthy in the same frame, often in scenes of almsgiving. It is interesting to note that that is not the case here; this little boy is of the outside of the main action, left to snatch food from an unattended table. His isolation from the main narrative becomes its own story, in some ways more powerful than it might have been when the work was whole. As the main figure here, the viewer must confront the stark reality of this boy’s existence. His tousled dark hair and short upturned nose contrast with the man’s well-groomed presence; his piercing brown eyes have the intense and serious quality that hunger confers. The scrap of cloth that is draped over his left arm contributes to his general air of raggedness, exposed as he is out in the street or in front of a rocky cliff. The two figures are in counterpoint, ragged to smooth, a study in contrasts.
And while we the fortunate may not personally relate to this boy’s experience, the work touches our common understanding, at least once our attention is drawn to it. As scholar Norman Bryson has said, “All men must eat, even the great; there is a levelling of humanity, a humbling of aspiration before an irreducible fact of life, hunger.”
 Arthur Howard Nichols, Household Inventory, 1901. Nichols Family Papers, Nichols House Museum.
 https://findagrave.com/memorial/53814249/lydia-newell-raymond. Accessed February 17, 2018.
Among the works she owned were two early John Singleton Copley paintings (Galatea which she sold in the 1890s, and a small version of The Return of Neptune), a gold ground depiction of Madonna and Child (MFA 84. 293) now attributed to Paolo Veneziano (active 1369-1388), and six Florentine miniatures, at least one of which was an oil on copper ca. 1760, a “Portrait of a Nun” (MFA 84.295).
 Cherry, Peter. Murillo, Scenes of Childhood. Merrell Publishers, 2001; Zirpolo, Lillian H., Historical Dictionary of Baroque Art & Architecture. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
 Essay by De Vernette Francois, Department of Paintings/Spanish Paintings “The Young Beggar” https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/young-beggar, accessed November 20, 2018.
 Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. Quoted in Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 163.