Jusepe de Ribera

Jusepe de Ribera

If Velazquez and Murillo were known for their dramatic yet well-lighted compositions, Jusepe de Ribera was a distinct artist for his execution of Spanish Baroque and Caravaggio-esque painting styles. A combination of the two styles would yield to a more dramatic and grandeur result. He would even intensify the level of murkiness in his work by choosing bizarre and bloody scenes as his subject matter.

Ribera was one of the first Spanish painters who had been inclined to painting sinister images. Undoubtedly though, he never regretted pursuing the road less traveled by because he had found success in it. He became one of the most influential Spanish artists in Italy throughout his career, especially known for the oddities in his paintings.

Overlooking the bizarre subject, one could see the sheer brilliance in Ribera’s Baroque style. He was as great in Baroque as he was in Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. With that, he had made a greater impact on the advancement of Baroque all over the continent, even greater than his contemporaries in Spain such as Diego Velazquez.

Overall, the Spanish native had profound interest in painting tortured saints, social outcasts, mentally-challenged individuals, deteriorating bodies and bloody martyrs.

Some examples of his bizarre works are Saint Sebastian, Saint Andrew, Martyrdom of St. Philip, and Drunken Silenus.

Early Life

Jusepe de Ribera was raised in Valencia, Spain. He was baptized around February 1591, so he must have been born around the time as well. He grew up to a middle-class family as his father was assumed to be a shoemaker working on large-scale orders. At a young age, his parents wanted him to be a literary scholar but he opted to choose painting as his area of specialization.

After neglecting his literary studies, he went to the studio of Francisco Ribalta, a local painter. However, there is no solid proof to prove this claim. But one thing is for sure; that he spent his boyhood in Spain before he pursued a lifetime dream that he could only find in Italy. Another theory why Ribera opted to leave Spain for the other country was because he had a forbidden affair with the daughter of his master.

Career in Italy

In 1611, Jusepe de Ribera went to Italy for the first-time. His route was via Parma and then to Rome, arriving there by 1613. One of his earliest projects was a private commission by a cardinal who took notice of his young talent in painting frescoes. He was frescoing the façade of a Roman palace anywhere between 1611 and 1613, and when the cardinal was impressed by his works, Ribera was immediately hired to do more commissioned works.

Around the time, he was given the alter-nick “Lo Spagnoletto” by his Italian contemporaries, which meant The Little Spaniard. He would even use it as his signature in his paintings. He simply has never forgotten his Spanish roots despite being an expatriate in Italy.

While in Rome, he made time to visit various galleries and studied those art works. He was influenced by the Roman artists apparently. He stayed in Via Margutta for a short period of time only where he could have met some well-known followers of Caravaggio such as Hendrik ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst. By this time, he became a member of the Academy of St. Luke in 1613 until 1616. Ending his active membership with the Roman guild of painters meant the opening of another opportunity in Naples.

In 1616, he moved to Naples to see more art works. Art historians actually believe that Ribera was on the haunt for a particular painter in Naples whose works influenced him the most. And that painter was Caravaggio, who by the time was already dead.

Fortunately though, he met Caravaggio’s daughter Catalina Azzolina India there and the two shared a romantic relationship which soon got the blessings of the church. Ribera married Catalina shortly after he met her, implying that he could have pre-arranged this marriage before he arrived at the city. The union served him well later in his career for this helped him gain much popularity in Naples. Therefore, he became the go-to court artists of several Neapolitan patrons, most of which were esteemed commissions.

Golden Years

The beginning of 1630’s was a pivotal moment in Ribera’s mature career. He was invited by the incumbent Pope to accept his new title in society thru the Papal Order of the Vatican. This award was equivalent to UK’s knighthood today, so it was a prestigious recognition given to Ribera at the time. In fact, Diego Velazquez, King Philip’s emissary in Italy was sent to Naples for the sole purpose of buying some works of Ribera. This transaction earned the Little Spaniard enough fortune to buy a high-class estate and open his own workshop.

However, there had also been some rumors that said Ribera was a selfish man whose interest was to monopolize the art commissions in Naples. He would have done this by sabotaging the works of other artists coming to the city particularly his competitors and declare grave threats on them. And because of fear, those threatened artists such as Guido Reni, Annibale Carracci and Domenichino would rather pursue potential commissions in other cities.

While this instance was proven to be true based on the biographies of the said artists, there is no proof of Ribera’s participation in the Cabal of Naples that was responsible for threatening the lives of their competitors. Nevertheless, Ribera’s workshop continued to thrive despite the internal conflict in Naples.

Later Years and Death

In the mid 1640’s, it is believed that Jusepe de Ribera fell ill to an unknown disease. This disabled him to work productively for a few years. A double jeopardy troubled the old man’s life and career when an uprising took place in Naples, and so his family was forced to evacuate the estate and then retreated to the palace of a Spanish Viceroy.

The uprising of the populist groups against the Spanish invaders had a negative effect on Ribera’s career. His commissions became fewer and fewer as the conflict improves. It was mainly because the Neapolitan patrons were either opting to move to other cities or the decided to cut ties with anybody with a Spanish blood.
In 1649, Ribera’s crippling disease came back and this was during a desperate time when he was suffering from financial distress already. He wrote a petition to the Spanish King to give him financial assistance due to the effects of the political conflict in Naples. But Ribera was no longer to receive the monarch’s response because he passed away already by 1652.

Major Work: The Poet

The Poet was one of Ribera’s most significant etchings. The poet is dressed in an oversized robe and he is unsurprisingly crowned with a laurel. He’s also leaning his on a stone-wall with his hand on the temple of his head. This work is considered as a masterpiece by a lot of art critics because at a young age Ribera already captured the moody tendencies of a poet, compelling facial expressions and the right tonalities applied on white paper.

According to scholars, the etching implies melancholy and poetry. They have also found the scene and theme parallel with the poem of Walther von der Vogelweide as well as some resemblance to the works of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Petrarch. Another theory is that the man depicted as the poet on the etching is Virgil, Italy’s greatest epic poet.

Virgil would be a viable candidate for his tomb was believed to be in Naples, buried somewhere in the tunnel or grotto of Posilipo. Legend also has it that his tomb is host to a bay tree that lasted for centuries, while the roots crawled its way through the stone-wall. Hence, the way The Poet etching appears to be.
Painting Style

As a solid follower of Caravaggio, Ribera used tenebrous and naturalistic style to portray dark and bizarre subjects and scenes in his paintings. It is only that the Spanish painter brought his Caravaggist style to a higher level by adding more intensity to his chiaroscuro with emphasis on the contours and tones of the figures.
In his works completed towards 1632, art historians begin to see a slight difference in his style. Those works now seemed to appear much brighter or illuminated plus the application of freer brush strokes. His color remained bold and vivid, showing that he applied different styles depending on his take on a particular subject matter.

While in Italy, Ribera had also learned of etching and printmaking, which clearly was an Italian influence. It was rare for a Spanish artist to become adept at etching at the time, so Ribera indeed left a mark in 17thC Hispanic history. Around 1620’s, it is believed that he made an attempt in collecting an etching of manuals for teaching. However, this compilation was left unpublished even after his death. Needless to say, Ribera did use preparatory drawings as a rough draft for his painted works.