BECAUSE of the recent Columbus quincentenary, the public had unusual opportunities to learn more of Iberian history and art, particularly exemplified painters. Most of us are at least partially acquainted with the wonders of El Greco and Velazquez but have been generally ignorant of men like Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), who is called "a Spanish realist in baroque Italy." Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York featured his work with a great number of his pictures never seen in the United St ates before - canvases, prints, and drawings, predominantly on religious themes, but with a few secular subjects.
Jusepe Ribera, the son of a shoemaker, was born in Jativa, an ancient town near Valencia on the Iberian peninsula, but he went to Italy as soon as he was grown and aware of his own powers as an artist. This was in 1611. He first went to Rome, where he joined the painters' academy and began painting the people he saw in the street - the poor, artisans, laborers - with an intense realism.
Like his contemporary Caravaggio, Ribera turned away from the traditional, antique mode of noble models (aristocrats, or subjects inspired by the classical ideal) to paint human life as it seems to be - often ugly and grotesque, with a realism that shocked but also attracted the public. He did not have any scruples as to shocking his viewers; he always followed his own inspiration.
Although he remained in Italy and never went back to Spain, Ribera was in no way absorbed by his surroundings. He was known as Lo Spagnoletto. In 1616 he went to Naples, then the greatest of the Italian cities, and an artistic center where painters could find many commissions.
Naples was then ruled by Spanish viceroys under the crown, and during Ribera's long life he was under the governance of many of these viceroys. It was a cosmopolitan place, where Italians and Spaniards lived stormily together, and where Ribera (apparently quite a stormy character himself), found many patrons. His work made its way back to Spanish churches in Madrid and Salamanca, as well as to Italian cities, through these nobles.
The year after he arrived in Naples, he married the daughter of a local artist, who provided an effectual entree to the social circles where he needed patronage. Philip IV was then King of Spain, and a great admirer of Velazquez, who was 10 years younger than Ribera; Valazquez himself was said to be influenced by the older man.
In the early part of his career, Lo Spagnoletto worked in chiaroscuro, which was then a popular style - the dark tones of gray and brown deepening to somber black, which in turn would be illuminated with flashes of brilliant light.
Later, after Ribera had come under the spell of Titian and Venice, he began to adopt a very colorful palate. This pleased the church, which wanted bright pictures to attract throngs as part of its labors in the Counter-Reformation.
Ribera rejected the allegorical and dealt with what he saw himself. He depicted terrible scenes of torture and suffering that were made all the more vivid because he was extraordinarily gifted in showing heads, faces, and hands in a tactile fashion. The skin and the bone structure were so realistic that many of his scenes and subjects are offensive to the squeamish. Presumably he did not mean to offend, but the savage did not repel him or, it would seem, many of his viewers. Some of his subjects were com mon to the times; for example, one of his famous pictures is of a boy dwarf, whom he painted with great sympathy and sensitivity. During this same period, Valazquez was dealing frequently with the identical theme, and obviously the public was inured to the depiction of human sorrow in this manner.
A splendid draftsman at a time when Spanish artists were not usually interested in drawing, Ribera used his precise sketches to guide him in his compositions; everything he did had verve and life. He painted portraits, which were an essential part of an artist's repertoire then, and a great many canvases on ecclesiastical and religious themes.
The example shown here deals with a secular theme, from his earlier stage, when he was using dark colors contrasted with the influx of light. It is from the series called "The Senses." Historically, the senses had been shown in the guise of classical figures, but Ribera took instead his street models of the poor and humble. His brush work was always magnificent and commanding, and even here in the shadows one recognizes his masterly control of his medium.
For "The Sense of Smell," he shows us a man smelling an onion, tears in his eyes, while before him lies a flower (possibly a lemon flower) and some garlic.
FOR "The Sense of Touch," Ribera has taken a rather complicated image, that of a blind man who is handling a piece of sculpture while before him lies a picture he cannot see. While not spectacular, the painting is moving and full of sympathy for the subject. The series prompts the viewer to ponder the role of the physical senses and their effect on individuals.
The series of paintings called "The Philosophers" was also done rather early (1630), commissioned by the Duke of Lichtenstein, and depicted different men. The painting of Democritus shows him in a cheerful mood, which is in itself something of a surprise, as the classically educated seldom think of him as jolly. However, to a Roman Catholic audience, Democritus represented that sort of philosopher who is amused, not appalled, by human frailties, an idea espoused by the Counter-Reformation of the day. Wha tever the theological viewpoint the artist was supposed to indicate, it is a fine painting, wonderfully impressive with its contrasts of light and dark.
Unfortunately, Ribera did few landscapes, although a few commissioned by the Duke of Alva survive.
Ribera was always busy with commissions, often embroiled in controversy, but whatever happened, he painted on, and we are the gainers. He opens to us, a little, that old Neapolitan scene of sharp contrasts: light and shade, opulence and misery resolutely bourne.