Seville, 1825 - 1887
Rafael Benjumea was born in Seville around 1825 and began training as an artist in 1845 at the Santa Isabel Royal Academy of Noble Arts in Seville, where he was an outstanding pupil – according to the academy’s annals – of drawing from life and was awarded “first prize and the grade of excellent in his higher studies at the school”, as the artist stated in the catalogue of the National Exhibition of 1884.
In 1848, when the Duke and Duchess of Montpensier settled into the palace of San Telmo in Seville, he benefited from the artistic patronage established by Antonio of Orleans in the Andalusian capital and in 1849 was commissioned to capture on canvas two greatly celebrated events in the Montpensiers’ family life: The Baptism and The Presentation to the Witnesses of the Infanta Doña Isabel de Orleans y Borbón, first daughter of the duke and duchess and future Countess of Paris. These paintings, which adorned the walls of the Montpensiers’ library for years and are now in the care of Patrimonio Nacional, provide a chronicle of the event, as they capture with surprising detail not only the settings where it took place – the chapel and the royal hall of the Alcázar in Seville – but each and every one of the people who attended both ceremonies.
In 1850 Benjumea moved to Madrid and began to take part in the exhibitions staged by the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts with small genre paintings. He also participated in the National Exhibitions of Fine Arts, entering two portraits in the first exhibition in 1856 and various portraits and genre paintings in those of 1858 and 1860. He received an honorary mention for Episodio de la guerra de África (“Episode of the War in Africa”), a painting closer to anecdote than history painting, despite its title.
An accomplished master of group portraits, Benjumea was sent for to the palace to capture the most outstanding family events of the court, in the manner of records of the period. Throughout the thirteen years he served as second court painter – although without being appointed to the post – he painted, in addition to portraits of dignitaries and diplomats, events as outstanding as El bautizo (“The Baptism”) and La presentación de la princesa de Asturias (“The Presentation of the Princess of Asturias”), El bautizo de la infanta Concepción (“The Baptism of the Infanta Concepción”), Los reyes Isabel II y Francisco de Asís adoran el Lignum Crucis en el patio de los Reyes del monasterio de El Escorial (“Queen Isabella II and King Francisco de Asís Adore the Lignum Crucis in the Courtyard of the Kings in El Escorial Monastery”), El bautizo (“The Baptism”) – the sketch for which he showed at the National Exhibition of 1864 – and La presentación del príncipe de Asturias (“The Presentation of the Prince of Asturias”); he was commissioned to paint 139 portraits, although according to the painter he actually produced “211 portraits directly from life”.
Benjumea also painted in watercolours and pastels and entered two pastel portraits in the National Exhibition of 1884, the catalogue of which provides a long list of all the titles and awards attained throughout his lifetime: “Decorated by the Government of HM with a full ordinary commandership of the American royal order of Isabella the Catholic; knight of the distinguished royal order of Charles III; commander, cross and badge of the Portuguese royal military order of Our Lord Jesus Christ; knight, cross and badge of the papal, military and equestrian order of the Holy Sepulchre; grand gold medal of the Prince of Wales; permanent member of the deputy committee of this court for the erection of the statue to Murillo; and royal curator of Spain in London for the International Exhibitions.”
The last known biographical reference dates from 1887 when, then living in Madrid, he submitted three oil paintings to that year’s National Exhibition: La Eva del día (“Eve of the Day”), Retrato D.N.D.B. (“Portrait D.N.D.B.”), La portada del baptisterio de la catedral de Sevilla y procesión de la Santa Cruz (“Façade of the Baptistery of Seville Cathedral and Procession of the Holy Cross”), and a genre scene in watercolours entitled A pillo, pillo y medio (“It Takes a Rascal to Catch a Rascal”).