Jusepe de Ribera was known as Lo Spagnoletto on account of his Spanish origin, which was obviously important to him as he often signed ‘hispanus’. However, at an early age, in around 1605, he moved to Rome where he may have worked in the studio of Caravaggio. In any event he was profoundly influenced by Caravaggio (1571–1610) and was one of his most gifted followers. His earliest multi-figural works, such as the Denial of St Peter (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte, Palazzo Corsini, Rome) have a decorous elegance combined with a dramatic intensity which recalls Caravaggio’s famous St Matthew series painted for San Luigi dei Francesi. While Ribera was working for major forward-looking patrons such as Vincenzo Giustiniani, he also worked for the Spanish community, notably Pietro Cussida (d. 1622) for whom he painted a famous series of The Five Senses. At around this time he also came into contact with Dutch Caravaggesque painters notably Dirck van Baburen (1595–1624) and Hendrick Ter Brugghen (1588–1629). Like them he developed a clientele for single figure paintings of Philosophers, usually rough and ready men in unkempt costumes, holding a book.
In 1616 Ribera moved to Naples where he soon established a reputation as the best painter in Naples. He received commissions from Cosimo II Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and most importantly the Spanish Viceroys, first the Duke of Osuna and then the Duke of Alcalá. It was for the latter that Ribera executed in the early 1630s some of his most remarkable works, notably the series of Philosophers, among them Euclid (Getty Museum, Los Angeles) and Democritus (Prado, Madrid). Based on the hyper-realistic observation of men in rags, seemingly beggars taken off the street, this was a revolutionary approach to the depiction of famous figures from antiquity. For Alcalá, also, Ribera painted the Bearded Lady. This and the Crippled Child are two remarkable examples of Ribera’s gift for turning seemingly grotesque figures, living on the margins of society, into compelling and dignified personalities.
Ribera’s palette becomes brighter and more silvery from the late 1630s onwards and though he and his extensive workshop continues to paint versions of the Philosophers and the Apostles, he also received prestigious commissions for Neapolitan churches, among them, in 1641, the large altarpiece painted on silvered copper for the Chapel of San Gennaro, the most important sacred site in Naples. An exquisitely delicately colored Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) which recalls the classicism of Guido Reni was completed in 1648, four years before his death. In addition to his prodigious activity as a painter, Ribera was also a highly accomplished engraver.
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Books on Jusepe de Ribera
Gianni Papi, Ribera a Roma, Soncino, 2007.
Nicola Spinosa, Ribera, Naples, 2006.
Alfonso E Pérez Sánchez and Nicola Spinosa, Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652, exh. cat., New York, 1992.
Antonio Palomino de Castro y Lelasco, Lives of the Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors, 1715-24, trans. Nina Alaya Mallory, Cambridge, 1987.