Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Jusepe de Ribera
Ribera, Jusepe de, called also SPAGNOLETTO, L'ESPAGNOLET (the little Spaniard), painter born at Jativa, 12 Jan., 1588; died at Naples, 1656. Fantastic accounts have been given of his early history; his father was said to be a noble, captain of the fortress of Naples, etc. All this is pure romance. A pupil of Ribalta, the author of many beautiful pictures in the churches of Valencia, the young man desired to know Italy. He was a very determined character. At eighteen, alone and without resources, he begged in the streets of Rome in order to live, and performed the services of a lackey. A picture by Caravaggio aroused his admiration, and he set out for Naples in search of the artist, but the latter had just died (1609). Ribera was then only twenty. For fifteen years the artist is entirely lost sight of; it is thought that he travelled in upper Italy. He is again found at Naples in 1626, at which time he was married, living like a nobleman, keeping his carriage and a train of followers, received by viceroys, the accomplished host of all travelling artists, and very proud of his title of Roman Academician. Velasquez paid him a visit on each of his journeys (1630, 1649). A sorrow clouded the end of his life; his daughter was seduced by Don Juan of Austria. Her father seems to have died of grief, but the story of his suicide is a fiction.
Ribera's name is synonymous with a terrifying art of wild-beast fighters and executioners. Not that he did not paint charming figures. No artist of his time, not excepting Rubens or Guido Reni, was more sensitive to a certain ideal of Correggio-like grace. But Ribera did not love either ugliness or beauty for themselves, seeking them in turn only to arouse emotion. His fixed idea, which recurs in every form in his art, is the pursuit and cultivation of sensation. In fact the whole of Ribera's work must be understood as that of a man who made the pathetic the condition of art and the reason of the beautiful. It is the negation of the art of the Renaissance, the reaction of asceticism and the Catholic Reformation on the voluptuous paganism of the sixteenth century. Hence the preference for the popular types, the weather-beaten and wrinkled beggar, and especially the old man. This "aging" of art about 1600 is a sign of the century. Heroic youth and pure beauty were dead for a long time. The anchorites and wasted cenobites, the parchment-like St. Jeromes, these singular methods of depicting the mystical life seem Ribera's personal creation; to show the ruins of the human body, the drama of a long existence written in furrows and wrinkles, all engraved by a pencil which digs and scrutinizes, using the sunlight as a kind of acid which bites and makes dark shadows, was one of the artist's most cherished formulas.
No one demonstrates so well the profound change which took place in men's minds after the Reformation and the Council of Trent. Thenceforth concern for character and accent forestalled every other consideration. Leanness, weariness, and abasement became the pictorial signs of the spiritual life. A sombre energy breathes in these figures of Apostles, prophets, saints, and philosophers. Search for character became that of ugliness and monstrosity. Nothing is so personal to Ribera as this love of deformity. Paintings like the portrait of "Cambazo", the blind sculptor, the "Bearded Woman" (Prado, 1630), and the "Club Foot" of the Louvre (1651) inaugurate curiosities which had happily been foreign to the spirit of the Renaissance. They show a gloomy pleasure in humiliating human nature. Art, which formerly used to glorify life, now violently emphasized its vices and defects. The artist seized upon the most ghastly aspects even of antiquity. Cato of Utica howling and distending his wound, Ixion on his wheel, Sisyphus beneath his rock. This artistic terrorism won for Ribera his sinister reputation, and it must be admitted that it had depraved and perverted qualities. The sight of blood and torture as the source of pleasure is more pagan than the joy of life and the laughing sensuality of the Renaissance. At times Ribera's art seems a dangerous return to the delights of the amphitheatre. His "Apollo and Marsyas" (Naples) his "Duel" or "Match of Women" (Prado) recall the programme of some spectacle manager of the decadence. In nothing is Ribera more "Latin" than in this sanguinary tradition of the games of the circus.
However, it would be unjust wholly to condemn this singular taste in accordance with our modern ideas. At least we cannot deny extraordinary merit to the scenes of martyrdom painted by Ribera. This great master has never been surpassed as a practical artist. For plastic realism, clearness of drawing and evidence of composition the "Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew" (there are in Europe a dozen copies, of which the most beautiful is at the Prado) is one of the masterpieces of Spanish genius. It is impossible to imagine a more novel and striking idea. No one has spoken a language more simple and direct. In this class of subjects Rubens usually avoids atrocity by an oratorical turn, by the splendour of his discourse, the lyric brilliancy of the colouring. Ribera's point of view is scarcely less powerful with much less artifice. It is less transformed and developed. The action is collected in fewer persons. The gestures are less redundant, with a more spontaneous quality. The tone is more sober and at the same time stronger. Everything seems more severe and of a more concentrated violence. The art also, while perhaps not the most elevated of all, is at least one of the most original and convincing. Few artiste have given us, if not serene enjoyment, more serious thoughts. The "St. Lawrence" of the Vatican is scarcely less beautiful than the "St. Bartholomew".
Moreover it must not be thought that these ideas of violence exhaust Ribera's art. They are supplemented by sweet ideas, and in his work horrible pictures alternate with tender ones. There is a type of young woman or rather young girl, still almost a child, of delicate beauty with candid oval features and rather thin arms, with streaming hair and an air of ignorance, a type of paradoxical grace which is found in his "Rapture of St. Magdalen" (Madrid, Academy of S. Fernando), or the "St. Agnes" of the Dresden Museum. This virginal figure is truly the "eternal feminine" of a country which more than any other dreamed of love and sought to deify its object summarizing in it the most irreconcilable desires and virtues. No painter has endowed the subject of the Immaculate Conception with such grandeur as Ribera in his picture for the Ursulines of Salamanca (1636). Even a certain familiar turn of imagination, a certain intimate and domestic piety, a sweetness, an amicable and popular cordiality which would seem unknown to this savage spirit were not foreign to him. In more than one instance he reminds us of Murillo. He painted several "Holy Families", "Housekeeping in the Carpenter Shop" (Gallery of the Duke of Norfolk). All that is inspired by tender reverie about cradles and chaste alcoves, all the distracting delights in which modern religion rejoices and which sometimes result in affectation, are found in more than germ in the art of this painter, who is regarded by many as cruel and uniformly inhuman. Thus throughout his work scenes of carnage are succeeded by scenes of love, atrocious visions by visions of beauty. They complete each other or rather the impression they convey is heightened by contrast. And under both forms the artist incessantly sought one object, namely to obtain the maximum of emotion; his art expresses the most intense nervous life.
This is the genius of antithesis. It forms the very basis of Ribera's art, the condition of his ideas, and even dictates the customary processes of his chiaroscuro. For Ribera's chiaroscuro, scarcely less personal than that of Rembrandt, is, no less than the latter's, inseparable from a certain manner of feeling. Less supple than the latter less enveloping, less penetrating, less permeable by the light, twilight, and penumbra, it proceeds more roughly by clearer oppositions and sharp intersections of light and darkness. Contrary to Rembrandt, Ribera does not decompose or discolour, his palette does not dissolve under the influence of shadows, and nothing is so peculiar to him as certain superexcited notes of furious red. Nevertheless, compared to Caravaggio, his chiaroscuro is much more than a mere means of relief. The canvas assumes a vulcanized, carbonized appearance. Large wan shapes stand out from the asphalt of the background, and the shadows about them deepen and accumulate a kind of obscure tragic capacity. There is always the same twofold rhythm, the same pathetic formula of a dramatized universe regarded as a duel between sorrow and joy, day and night. This striking formula, infinitely less subtile than that of Rembrandt, nevertheless had an immense success. For all the schools of the south Caravaggio's chiaroscuro perfected by Ribera had the force of law, such as it is found throughout the Neapolitan school, in Stanzioni, Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano. In modern times Bonnat and Ribot painted as though they knew no master but Ribera.
Rest came to this violent nature towards the end of his life; from the idea of contrast he rose to that of harmony. His last works, the "Club Foot" and the "Adoration of the Shepherds" (1650), both in the Louvre, are painted in a silvery tone which seems to foreshadow the light of Velasquez. His hand had not lost its vigour, its care for truth; he always displayed the same implacable and, as it were, inflexible realism. The objects of still life in the "Adoration of the Shepherds" have not been equalled by any specialist, but these works are marked by a new serenity. This impassioned genius leaves us under a tranquil impression; we catch a ray- should it rather be called a reflection?- the Olympian genius of the author of "The Maids of Honour".
Ribera was long the only Spanish painter who enjoyed a European fame; this he owed to the fact that he had lived at Naples and has often been classed with the European school. Because of this he is now denied the glory which was formerly his. He is regarded more or less as a deserter, at any rate as the least national of Spanish painters. But in the seventeenth century Naples was still Spanish, and by living there a man did not cease to be a Spanish subject. By removing the centre of the school to Naples, Ribera did Spain a great service. Spanish art, hitherto little known, almost lost at Valencia and Seville, thanks to Ribera was put into wider circulation. Through the authority of a master recognized even at Rome the school felt emboldened and encouraged. It is true that his art, although more Spanish than any other, is also somewhat less specialized; it is cosmopolitan. Like Seneca and Lucian, who came from Cordova, and St. Augustine, who came from Carthage, Ribera has expressed in a universal language the ideal of the country where life has most savour.
DOMINICI, Vite de' pittori . . . napoletani (Naples, 1742-1743; 2nd ed., Naples, 1844); PALOMINO, El Museo Pictórico, I (Madrid, 1715); II (Madrid, 1724); Noticias, Elogios y Vidas de Los Pintores, at the end of vol. II, Separate edition (London, 1742), in German (Dresden, 1781); BERMÚDEZ, Diccionario historíco de los más ilustres profesores de las bellas artes en España (Madrid, 1800); STIRLING. Annals of the artists of Spain (London, 1848); VIARDOT, Notices sur les principaux peintres de l'Espagne (Paris, 1839); BLANC, Ecole Espagnole (1869); MEYER, Ribera (Strasburg, 1908); LAFOND, Ribera et Zurbaran (Paris, 1910).