The Italian Renaissance from the 13th to 17th Centuries is characterized by a flourishing abundance of artists, scientists, and thinkers. The larger-than-life figures of Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, and others dominate the cultural and artistic history of the time. Among these historical giants, however, are hundreds of other talented artists, less remembered by history but no less passionate and creative. Jusepe de Ribera was one of these artists. Ribera was an incredibly popular and well-known artist in Italy in the 17th century, possibly the most influential and successful artist of the Spanish Baroque era. In the latter part of his career, he received international commissions and maintained a large studio. More important than his personal success, however, is the role that he played in developing the potential for cultural criticism in art.
Jusepe de Ribera was born in Valencia Spain in 1591 where it is believed that he studied as a child under a local artist. In his early teenage years, he moved to Italy, eventually settling in Naples. Here in Naples, Ribera was exposed to the Classics of the Italian Renaissance. He was especially influenced by the work of Caravaggio, and much of the chiaroscuro style employed by Caravaggio can be seen in Ribera’s work. Also in Naples, Ribera marries the daughter of a Flemish art dealer and comes into contact with the works of the artists in the Flemish Baroque movement. With this unique set of influences, Ribera developed a more versatile style than any of the other artists in the Spanish Baroque movement. Ribera alternated between the dark, hard style of chiaroscuro and the looser, brighter brush strokes of the Flemish artists depending on what best suited the subject matter. He is most known for his darker material, however, often depicting aging and deformed bodies.
The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (ca. 1630)
Many of Ribera’s works dealt with religious subject matter common to the era. This is illustrated in the painting The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. This work shows the chiaroscuro technique commonly used by Ribera, the areas of color bright in contrast to deep shadows. The painting combines the religious material required from commissions of the age with the aged bodies on which Ribera often focused. Though this work is quite different than the rest of the Spanish Baroque artists, it is not an uncommon style for Italy at that time.
Ribera was also set apart from other members of the Spanish Baroque because of his propensity for sketching. Drawing was not common among the Spaniards at the time. They preferred to paint. The Italian and Flemish artists were much more likely to devote effort to drawings and etchings. Ribera took part in this tradition, doing extensive sketching, etching, and printmaking. He even used sketches and etchings to mass produce and distribute his work.
Large Grotesque Head (ca. 1622)
The sketch Large Grotesque Head exemplifies Ribera’s drawing style. Ribera used a combination of short, scratchy lines, dark shading, and cross hashing. He always used wither graphite or red chalk for his drawings. Most striking, however, is the subject matter. Not only did Ribera generally draw non-elite citizens, he also chose to draw people with various skin maladies. In this case, the man in the drawing has large goiters dangling from his neck and a series of unsightly, hairy warts. The man’s features are bulbous and exaggerated. This creates something between a caricature and a portrait and was common subject matter for Ribera. These drawings and paintings as well as Ribera’s gore-filled scenes of martyrdom played a part in starting a slow movement in the European art community toward presenting the world in a non-idealistic or even overtly gruesome fashion. This began in Naples were Ribera was working and became known by some critics as “the poetry of the repulsive.”
Grotesque Head of a Bearded Man, with Eyes and Fur of a Dog or Monkey (date unknown)
Ribera is known for his portraiture of features generally considered to be unappealing. There is some debate, however, as to the purpose of this style of drawing. Some of the drawings seem to be caricatures. Others have more serious and meaningful elements, however. In Grotesque Head of a Bearded Man, with Eyes and Fur of a Dog or Monkey, one can see Ribera’s characteristic drawing style in the face of the man. This face is similar to all of Ribera’s other portraits containing subjects with medical deformities. This portrait however is complete with an ornate frame. This gives the subject of this drawing, likely a court jester, a dignity and importance that he did not have in life. Without writing directly from Ribera, the original meaning of the frame cannot be known. It has been postulated, however, that this portrait and a few others completed by Ribera are satirical portraits. These images consist of busts in the style discussed above with some added feature to move them away from reality. These features include the frame above and, often, tiny climbing figures. These features that move the subjects of the drawings into a space slightly different from reality clearly add some level of meaning to the portraits. These were some of the first satirical portraits and paved the way for further social commentary through art.
Vivian Farina. “Ribera: Satirical Portrait of a Nun.” Master Drawings. Vol. 52, No. 4. Winter 2014: 471-480. Print.
Artble. 2015. Web. Accessed Feb. 23, 2015.
Getty. The J. Paul Getty Museum. 2015. Web. Accessed Feb. 23, 2015.