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Monday, March 19, 2012

Jose de Ribera

Appearances can be deceiving--exquisite detail
 from a painting by Jose de Ribera. The entire
painting is pictured at the bottom.
A few days ago several friends and I were discussing the fact that artists from outside a given areas seem to be more appreciated than those with local addresses. Well, guess what, there's nothing new about that. Even Christ made note of that fact in the Bible though if I recall he was he was talking about prophets rather than artists, though some might equate the two. An interesting example of this phenomena is Jose de Ribera. He was Spanish, born in 1590 or 1591 (sources differ) in the small town of Jativa near Valencia, Spain. Art historians guess he probably began his studies in Valencia and even assign him to the classroom of Francisco Ribalta though it's difficult to find any trace of Ribalta's style in his early work. 

During this time, the Italian city of Naples was under the control of a number of Spanish Viceroys, making it a Spanish colony, and the richest trade center in all of the Mediterranean. It was there, in 1609, that Ribera migrated, no doubt for the money. And it was there, and in Rome where he picked up the influence of Caravaggio. His own modifications of Caravaggio's intense chiaroscuro made for a very distinctive style of his own. And for the rest of his life he was the most popular painter in Naples.  In fact, he and Murillo are about the only two Spanish painters known outside their own country. Later in his life, Ribera began slipping from the strong tenebrist qualities of Caravaggio and began utilizing more color and softer, more painterly tendencies typical of Bolognese painting.

The Beggar Known as Club-foot,
1642, Jose de Ribera
Ribera often surprises us with his images. He seems to have especially loved physical oddities (as seen in the painting at the bottom). In 1642, he painted The Beggar Known as Club-foot (left). It's a teenage boy, his deformed right foot graphically depicted, his body, small for his age, clothed not in rags, but certainly bearing the hallmarks of poverty. He bares a black bag probably containing all his worldly possessions while over his shoulder rests a crutch. In his hand is the highly legible note in Latin: "Give me alms for the love of God." One might expect, given such a description, a pitiable wretch burdened with the fact that he's even alive. Instead, what we see is a charming, not unattractive, essentially optimistic young urchin, very much happy to be alive, his gummy smile, though slightly decaying teeth, at odds with our stereotype of this sort of individual even today.

Archimedes, 1630, Jose de Ribera

The same can be seen in Ribera's portrait of the famed mathematician Archimedes (right). Where we might expect a dour, pasty, colorless scholar, we instead find a rather thin, grimy, balding figure, again smiling, a compass in one hand, a sheaf of papers bearing geometric equations in the other. He is unkempt, his cloak open to nearly the waist, exposing a pale, hairless chest. Again, the painter has broken with tradition, depicting the man, not the myth. Even in his religious works, for which Ribera is most well known, we see the same element of surprise though, hampered by religious expectations, only not quite to the same extent. Without ever having returned to his homeland, Ribera's work was to have a great influence on any number of Spanish painters during the next two hundred years. Like his idol, Caravaggio (whom Ribera managed to meet briefly in Rome), his worked went where he could not, and shaped the painting style of artists he never knew or met.

The Bearded Lady, 1631, Jose de Ribera.  Despite the title, it takes
a moment to entirely realize what you are seeing.

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