- Other Titles
- Aesop (A philosopher)
- circa 1625-circa 1631
- Media category
- Materials used
- oil on canvas
- 125.0 x 92.0 cm canvas
- Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
- Purchased in 2021 with funds provided by the Art Gallery NSW Foundation and the Art Gallery NSW 2019 Gala dinner
- 15th–19th c European art
- Accession number
- Artist information
Jusepe de Ribera
Works in the collection
Biography and background
Spanish by birth, Jusepe de Ribera moved to Italy when he was 14 or 15. During his early years in Rome (1606–16) he adopted Caravaggio’s practice of working directly from posed models, enabling him to give vibrant presence to his figures. Ribera moved to Naples in 1616, then part of the Spanish empire. His growing prestige there is revealed by a string of important commissions from the Spanish vice-regal court. Ribera was known as ‘Lo Spagnoletto’ and remained proud of his Valencian heritage. Although he never returned to Spain himself, his paintings were nonetheless exported in large numbers to his country of birth, where they were extraordinarily influential.
By the 1640s Ribera was operating a large, well-organised workshop, which collaborated extensively on minor works, and which frequently produced copies and adaptations of the master’s models. Ribera was to exert a powerful influence on 17th-century art in many parts of Europe. After his death he was considered the most important tenebrist painter, with his dark, austere sense of colour, his love of violent and emotionally intense subject-matter and his supposed lack of a sense of beauty and harmony. Rubens and Rembrandt owned works by him.
The painting in the context of Ribera’s œuvre - beggar philosophers
During the 1630s Ribera produced numerous paintings of three-quarter length elderly male figures dressed in tattered clothes and engaged in some way with a book. Each figure is presumed to represent a particular ancient philosopher. There are records of two series of so-called ‘beggar philosopher’ paintings executed for two different patrons: one for the Prince of Liechtenstein in 1636, and a slightly earlier one for the duke of Alcalá.
The present work, with its arresting physical and psychological presence enhanced by strongly individualised features, appears to be one of the earliest examples of Ribera’s beggar philosopher paintings, probably completed sometime between 1625 and 1631, some years before the artist developed the aged philosopher type in a more programmatic way.
The subject of our picture is identifiable as Aesop by the inscription ‘Hissopo’ on the spine of the book. Aesop was not properly considered a philosopher but a legendary storyteller who used talking animals in order to make a sharp critique of human foolishness. His fables have become one of the most enduring literary traditions of European culture. Aesop was a notoriously ugly slave who eventually secured his freedom through his verbal wit. The physical attributes of the figure, rendered with an almost ruthless naturalism, also fit the historical descriptions of the ancient Greek fable writer, whose life itself is an amusing study in myth.
Ribera endowed this image of a shoddily clad ancient philosopher with the quality of concrete reality rarely encountered in other 17th-century painters. He found his subjects among the common people in the alleys of Naples, and depicted them with a remarkable feeling for their individual dignity. The intensity of the old man’s expression, suggestive of someone rendered wise through the hardships he has suffered, gives the painting a portrait-like quality.
Ribera peels back the barrier between subject and the beholder, creating a powerful psychological presence. The impact of Aesop’s brooding, quizzical expression is overpowering as he puts us under his truth-seeking gaze. His strikingly ugly face, conspicuously inspired by ancient sculpture, makes no concessions to notions of ideal beauty. Quite the opposite: it has a Leonardesque fascination with the grotesque, something that Ribera employed as a way of exploring the idea of ancient philosophers as figures who renounced worldly goods and glory and embraced a life of poverty. Here truth is associated as well to ugliness. Aesop is not a pretty image to be sure, but that is the point. The important idea is that he has an interior – inside he has a soul, inside he has many thoughts, inside he has many problems. And on the exterior he has pain because life is also pain. Ribera’s 'Aesop' represents the unflinching toughness and disconcerting directness of Neapolitan painting in the 17th century.
Shown in 1 exhibition
José de Ribera: bajo el signo de Caravaggio (1613-1633), Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, Seville, Sep 2005–Oct 2005
Referenced in 5 publications
Nicola Spinosa (Editor), José de Ribera: bajo el signo de Caravaggio (1613-1633) (exh cat), Seville, 2005, col illus.
Nicola Spinosa, Ribera, Naples, 2006, no A68, col illus.
Nicola Spinosa, Ribera. La Obria completa, Madrid, 2008, p 365.
Nicola Spinosa, Ribera, Naples, 2003, p 273, no A68, col illus p 76, b&w illus p 273.
Tableaux anciens bel ameublement (auction cat), Pescheteau-Badin, Godeau et Leroy & de Ricqlès, Drouot Paris, Paris, 19 Jun 2000, p 21, no 52b. As "17th century Spanish school, circle of Giuseppe Ribera".