Jusepe (José) de Ribera always asserted in the signatures of his paintings and engravings that he was a Spaniard; he frecuently added that he was a Valencian, and occasionally (most frecuently about 1682) he gave his birth-place, repeating that he was a "Setabensis"- from the city of Játiva.
By the time he left Spain he had been trained in the technique of painting by Francisco Ribalta, the most celebrated and best Valencian painter about 1600, and indeed until his dead in 1628. The fact that Palomino, Ribera's first Spanish biographer, mentioned the apprenticeship under Ribalta would hardly suffice were it not supported by information obtained by Palomino in Valencia (where the writer-painter often worked) and by an examination of Ribera's technique during his early period, with his Ribalta reds. Also, Juan Ribalta when working by his father's side painted very much like Ribera, especially in the best authenticated and most remarkable of his pictures, the Crucifixion which he signed at Valencia in 1616, when he was 18.
Ribera's father was a Spaniard soldier of pure descent and served in Italy, where he was in command of various fortresses and cities. His military carreer gives the reason for the early and definitive migration to Italy of the painter.
Ribera married Catalina, daugther of the painter Giovanni Bernardo Azzolino, at Naples in 1616, and she was his only wife. From 1616 to 1620 the Viceroy was the great statesman Duke of Osuna, protector of Argensola and Don Francisco de Quevedo. He also protected Ribera, who painted magnificent pictures for him, one of which, a stupendous work is preserved in the ducal collegiate church of Osuna.
The critics, while admitting that Ribera learnt much from Ribalta, insist that before definitely establishing his supremacy at Naples, where he lived all his life as the most brilliant man of his day, the court painter of one Sapnish viceroy after another, he had to travel in Northern Italy, traces of which journeys remain in copies and imitations of Tintoretto and Correggio.
However, once he had learnt that which he sought from such exercises and from his at first sight curious, but as we shall explain later deep and most salutary love for Correggio, will, inspiration and conviction combined with the advice and example of Ribalta to make him follow in the then revolutionary steps of Michelangelo Caravaggio. The premature death in 1609 of the creator of the realist and "tenebrous" school left vacant and honourable and foremost place which Ribera made his own, leaving far behind other followers of various origin, like the Bolognese Guercino and Spada and the Dutchman Honthorst. Caravaggio was throughly superceded.
Caravaggio (and also Ribera during the better part of his carrer and his first successful years) heralded the new and essentially pictorial truth has triumphantly progressed, moving forward gradually and surely over a difficult ways but Caravaggio's and particularly Ribera's examples suffice to make us call archaic the art of painters (like the neo-classicists of the XVIII and the Romanticists of the XIX centuries) who forget to submit unconditionally to the dictates of light.
Ribera, like Caravaggio, unfaillingly proclaimed in all his work this essence of painting. Both of them, however, doubtless guessed what enormous difficulties, caused by the colour-reflections of objects thrown from one to another, lay in their way. Such men as Zurbaran, Velazquez, Hals and Rembrandt (all influenced by Ribera), and also Turner, the French landscape painters of 1850 and the whole modern divisionist school, found ways of overcoming these difficulties. Caravaggio's and Ribera's way of dealing with them preserving their principles entire and for the first time gave the world a long series of pictures that are first and foremost pictures -not decorative paintings nor drawings embellished with colour, but simply painting, with the absolute illusion of a bit of reality.
Lo Spagnoletto declined, when he received visits from Jusepe Martinez, Pacheco and Velazquez, to return to Spain, knowing he was famous there, living as one of the great contending masters of art in such a city as Naples, then centre of aesthetic life of the continent. By this time he need no Maecenas, though later four succesive viceroys did order many pictures from him: the excellent statesman Duke of Alcala, the high-spirited Count of Monterrey, the magnificent Duke of Medina de las Torres and the admiral of Castille. With all this the bulk and all the best of Ribera's work (except a few that went to the Cathedral and the Cartussian house in Naples) took the road to Spain, offering the most beautiful products of his imagination, which was growing daily more human and aimiable, series after series in his earlier manner, old philosophers so-called, old penitents, etc.
Ribera, though he would have none of the religious art of the XVI century, was a painter of profoundly religious inspiration, after his own manner. He found, either himself or in his new surroundings, something that no other painter has had, a deep love for the heroic age of Christianity. There nothing mystic about his art, nothing complicated in his religious ideals: his apostles are sailors; his favorite saints martyrs and hermits. Ribera's religious idea was admirably served by a rare sensitiveness which is not distinguisable at first sight, of course absent from school repetitions and imitations by his pupils, and only exists in the authentic works of his own hand. In Ribera there's something deeper than the passion of his subjects, of the details of the scenes; this something is a living sensitiveness, at times physiological, but always living and always present in his pictures. His pictures, so strong in chiaroscuro and in their note of truth, which makes them admirable when seen from a distance, are also full, when examined closely, of an essentially vibrating energy in their workmanship; and this comes out equally well in large canvasses and in engravings.
All this shows the importance of the study of workmanship in the enjoyment of painting and also in order to arrive at a chronological classification of Ribera's production. He always put on his paint thick, though rather less so as time went on, and used a short brush, sometimes cutting it down shorter still. The years 1630 to 1632 show his most typical technique. With supreme mastery he laid on his colour in paralell furrows, coming out strongly in the head of St. Joseph. He afterwards came to vary these straight lines by strokes of a sort he had not formerly used, though always with restraint; he used his colours more liquid and employed rather softer brushes reserving for his light-effects the violent touch which he had formerly applied everywhere. At the same time his colour changed, and he insisted less on his now definite accomplishment of powerful relief in chiaroscuro.
Spain, though not the Prado, preserves some of Ribera's most beautiful and moving work, such the Inmaculate Conception at Salamanca or the Virgin in the Adoration of the Shepherds at Valencia. The fire that destroyed the Alcazar in 1734 consumed part of his best, and the most notable Riberas now existing out of Spain and Italy were removed from Spain during the Peninsula war.
The Ribera second period, the completely developed Ribera, is almost unknown abroad, ignored even in Spain. When in the XVIII century Queen Isabella Farnese made good the capital's losses by fire with wisely chosen pictures, Riberas were catalogued as Murillos. It's true that Lo Spagnoletto, throughout his second period, turned out replicas of works in his earlier manner, to which the trade and the public everywhere in Europe had become accustomed. The majority of people in this wretched world of ours never change their minds about the things they like or dislike, however a man may change and prograss. It was less difficult to tell a 'Ribera' from a distance than to recognise as his a new manner, equally sensitive and powerful but far more tender and human and enriched with fresh beauties of tone and colour, equally masculine, realistic and pictorial.
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