Jusepe de Ribera
Spanish, about 1590-1652

SN 334, Oil on canvas, 1643

From "The Pages"

De Ribera was born in Valencia, son of a shoemaker. However, when hardly out of his teens he was off to Italy, so that all of his known career is outside of Spain. Although he became one of the most important painters in Europe, he remains an elusive, shadowy figure.

He attended the Accademia de St Luca in Rome in 1613; he was much influenced by Caravaggio, altho’ when the latter died in 1610, Ribera was barely 20. After visiting Parma, Bologna, & Rome, he settled in Spanish-ruled Naples in 1616.

He was an accomplished printmaker, inspiring followers who had never seen his paintings. A prolific & accomplished draftsman, he would sketch for the next day’s painting while engaging visiting clients in conversation. Soon he was filling commissions for the Italian church, expatriate Spanish grandees, & supplying

Philip IV with many paintings; he became the most famous artist in Naples. The Italians called him “Lo Spagnoletto” – “the little Spaniard.”

In 1626 he went to Rome to receive a Vatican Order of Nobility, & was awarded a similar honor in Portugal. He oversaw a large workshop & his painting exerted an immense influence on Velasquez and Zurbar n, among others.

He married another highly-regarded artist’s daughter. A violent man, he was reputedly involved in many escapades; it has been said that he belonged to a kind of painters’ Mafia in Naples, which struck terror into the hearts of artists who weren’t members; the nasty tricks included mixing dirt into the paint pigments of his rivals, & sending them poison-pen letters.

Many of Ribera’s paintings exploited moments of high religious drama, gruesome martyrdom, the Crucifixion – all rendered with harsh realism & exact observation. His models were chosen from filthy Neopolitan streets, & his depictions of violence & the grinding poverty in Naples were terrifying. “When Ribera’s figures smile, they reveal the worst teeth in Western art; a small gust of caries blows from the museum walls.” (Time, 10/12/92)

But toward the end of his life, Ribera turned away from the blood & suffering he had portrayed so brutally, becoming more reverent. The Madonna nursing the Christ child was a popular theme, & Ribera’s Madonnas are wistful beauties.

Here the Madonna is portrayed as a loving mother, gravely holding her sleepy, naked Child in her arms. She gazes down at her Child with love - and a hint of sadness at what is to come. And unlike many representations of the Christ child, this one brings us a beautiful Infant!

Ribera has included the symbolic crescent moon on which they rest. This type of image referred to the Immaculate Conception, & promoted the doctrine that Mary was free from original sin. Often an attribute of the Virgin, the moon suggests that Mary is above its transitory phases; she is eternal. (Revelations 12:1, reads: “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon….under her feet…”) Ribera, however, gives us a real, down-to-earth young woman in a celestial setting.

Ribera used a rich impasto and fast brushwork to build a surface that achieves an exciting life of his own .
Additional Bibliography:

Metropolitan Museum of Art Catalog Exhibition, Sept 18-Nov 29, 1992.
Wall Street Journal, Arts & Leisure section, ) Oct 28, 1992.