Aesop (A Philosopher)

Date
ca. 1630

Medium
oil on canvas

Dimension
125 x 92 cm

Date
ca. 1630

Medium
oil on canvas

Dimension
125 x 92 cm

Aesop (A Philosopher) is a painting by Jusepe de Ribera, belonging to his ‘beggar philosopher’ series from the 1630s. It was sold through Nicholas Hall to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
Provenance

(Probably) Fernando Enriquez Afán de Ribera, 3rd Duke of Alcalá (1583-1637), viceroy of Naples (1629-1631), then viceroy of Sicily

(Probably) By descent to Antonio de la Cerda, 7th Duke of Medinaceli (1607-1671), heir to the Alcalá titles, until at least 1711

(Probably) Balbi Collection, Genoa, until at least 1780

de Boischevallier Collection, Tourraine

By descent to Elizabeth Hullin de Boischevallier, Reims

Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 19 June 2000, lot 52b

Private collection, New York

Art Gallery of New South Wales, sold through Nicholas Hall, 2021

Exhibited

Salamanca, Fundación Caja Duero, José de Ribera, Bajo el Signo de Caravaggio, 7 April – 5 June 2005; travelled to Seville, Museo del Belles Artes de Sevilla, 14 September – 23 October 2005

Literature

Nicola Spinosa, Ribera, Naples, 2003, pp. 76, 273, no. A68 (different painting of the same composition reproduced in error).

Nicola Spinosa, José de Ribera, Bajo el Signo de Caravaggio, Salamanca, 2005, exh. cat., no. 23 (no. 24 in Valencia edition), reproduced on frontispiece.

Nicola Spinosa, Ribera, Naples, 2006, pp. 76, 293, no. A68, reproduced.

Nicola Spinosa, Ribera: l’Obra Completa, Madrid, 2008, p. 365.

Essay

This painting depicts the celebrated fabulist, Aesop (ca. 620-564 BCE), identifiable here by the name “Hissopo” on the spine of one of the books strewn on the table. Aesop is now widely known as the author of the Fables which use the interaction of animals to illustrate the, often counterintuitive, strategies for human success. There were numerous early sources which refer to Aesop, among them Aristotle, Herodotus and Plutarch and an anonymous work entitled The Aesop Romance.

Of Phrygian birth, Aesop was a slave whose master was the philosopher, Xanthus. He was known for his ugliness as well as his gift for insightful storytelling and was said to have served a number of Greek potentates including Periander of Corinth and King Croesus of Lydia. Although Ribera may have been familiar with an idealized Hellenistic sculpture of Aesop at the Villa Albani in Rome, he chooses to portray him here as a gnarled, brooding man in rags leaning on a rudimentary crutch, in keeping with his other ‘Philosophers’.

The present painting, while not signed, exhibits all the technical and stylistic traits of Ribera’s documented work of the mid-to-late 1620’s, a fact that has been recognized by all of those scholars who have examined the painting first-hand.[1] As such, it takes its place among a small group of early genre and allegorical compositions that were among Ribera’s most significant contributions to the development of Seventeenth Century painting.  The earliest experiment in this direction is the famous series of the Senses,[2] dating from shortly after the artist’s arrival in Italy. It represents an innovative interpretation of caravaggesque ‘naturalism’, attuned to the literary and sophisticated predilections of the Roman and Neapolitan elite.

The concept of the ‘beggar philosopher’ was, likewise, a brilliant invention of the recently emigrated Spanish artist; it allowed him to display his prodigious technical skills while treating profane subjects that could be read on several levels of erudition and taste, particularly in the intellectual climate created by the election to the papacy of Maffeo Barberini (Urban VIII) in 1623.

This important painting was sold in June 2000 by a descendant of the Boischevallier family at a public sale in France. Together with it, from the same consignor, was a second painting by Ribera, of identical size and similar subject; Euclid. Although both paintings were similarly framed and had obviously been paired for at least two hundred years, it was clear from even the most superficial examination that the two works had not been conceived and executed as pendants. Euclid was signed by the artist and appeared to be of a slightly later date than the Aesop. It is now part of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

One of Ribera’s earliest and most important patrons was very much part of this intellectual and artistic environment. A prominent collector and bibliophile, Fernando Enrique Afán de Ribera, third Duke of Alcalá, (1583-1637) had already created a splendid princely residence in his native Seville by the time he was named Viceroy to Naples in 1629. He may well have befriended and patronized Ribera on an earlier trip to Italy in 1625. Although on a political level his viceregal tenure in Naples (1629-1631) was not particularly successful, it allowed the Duke to return to Spain with an impressive number of works of art, both in painting and in sculpture. Among them are Magdalena Ventura with her Husband and Son and at least four “Philosophers” by Ribera.  The description of these in a later inventory has given scholars precious information for the dating and identification of these much-admired compositions.[3] There is every reason to believe that the entry:

III 14 – Dos Philosophos de mano de Josephe de Rivera que el uno tiene avierto un libro y el ottro tiene dos libros cerrados torcidos los ojos del uno ambos sin gon y vinieron en el caxon no. 1.[4]

refers to not only the painting in question, but also to Euclid now at the Getty Museum, with which it formed a pair until recently. This clearly establishes a terminus for their execution since the expression “…vinieron en el caxon…” is applied only to those items that accompanied the Duke on his return to Spain in 1631. The date is also significant since it confirms that these paintings, and a handful of others, served as prototypes for a type that would enjoy great influence and popularity in subsequent years.

There are several versions of this composition, mostly of workshop quality. However, the now extremely damaged version at the Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial (Inv. 10014616) is often regarded as the prime original. Nicola Spinosa and Craig Felton, among others, believe that ours is a fully autograph and the best preserved of the extant versions. Another variant of high quality, but less well preserved, formerly in the Carvalho Collection, Chateau de Villandry, was with Colnaghi in London. One need only to think of the group of four Philosophers, signed and dated 1637, formerly in the Liechtenstein Collection, to realize how successfully Ribera elaborated on the theme he had invented more than a decade previously.

Both Euclid and Aesop were known through a number of period copies or replicas.[5] Judging by their appearance upon emerging from the Boischevallier Collection, the paintings had received little or no attention for considerable time. This may account for the fact that they had not been previously identified correctly (sold in 2000 as “17th century Spanish school, circle of Giuseppe Ribera”). Recent research has not been able to establish the date or circumstances of their acquisition by the Boischevallier family. Therefore, the link to their origin as part of the Alcalá purchases must be based on the evidence of the painting themselves and their description in the inventory, cited above. As regards the evident discrepancy in their dates, it would not have been unusual for an important patron such as Alcalá to commission a second painting (Euclid) to accompany a slightly earlier work (Aesop) already in his collection. Dating the latter in the mid 1620’s and the former to 1630 or 1631 would not only be perfectly consistent with the paintings’ style but would account for their inclusion as a pair in the post-1631 inventory.❖

 

Notes

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