Painted in Naples, Aesop c1625–31 is a portrayal of Aesop, the legendary ancient Greek storyteller, and one of Ribera’s very first representations of so-called ‘beggar philosophers’.
Spanish by birth, Ribera (1591–1652) moved to Rome at an early age and eventually made his home in Naples where he adopted Caravaggio’s practice of working directly from posed models, imparting them with a vibrant presence that showed all their imperfections with life-like realism.
Purchased in 2021, the Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation funded the acquisition from its endowment and funds raised at a 2019 Foundation event.
The work is on display in the Art Gallery’s revitalised Grand Courts, which are considered the finest Victorian-era galleries in Australia.
Art Gallery of NSW director Dr Michael Brand said, ‘The Art Gallery is extremely grateful for the generous philanthropy of our Foundation supporters in funding this remarkable acquisition which expands the Art Gallery’s already renowned international art collection.
‘This work is one of the highlights of our newly opened Grand Courts rehang, which is the first phase of a full reinstallation of the Art Gallery’s Australian and International art collection across our gallery spaces.
‘The Grand Courts rehang marks the first time in half a century that the institution has embarked on a thorough rethinking of how our collections are displayed and experienced at the Art Gallery and features a new presentation of historic art inflected with contemporary art.
‘Ribera was a pioneering artist of his day, and we are proud to share this work with our visitors,’ Brand said.
The painting is thought to be one of the two philosopher canvases owned by the third Duke of Alcala, Viceroy of Naples. The other painting is believed to be Euclid. During the 19th century the paintings were held in the Boischevalier collection in France, where they remained until they were sold by a descendent of the family at auction in Paris in 2000. Euclid is now in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Although Aesop’s animal fables are among the oldest and best-known collections of stories in the world, it is not known whether he existed. Ancient sources describe him as being a slave and extremely ugly, but clever enough to outwit others and eventually secure his own freedom.
As part of the Art Gallery’s expansion – the Sydney Modern Project – the Foundation is working closely with the Art Gallery to enhance the collection of works to be shown across both buildings.
Chair of the Art Gallery of NSW Foundation Board, Kiera Grant, said, ‘The Art Gallery of NSW Foundation is delighted to fund the acquisition of this very significant work by Jusepe de Ribera for the collection. We're thrilled this luminous work has been unveiled as part of the new Grand Courts display.
‘The Foundation established its endowment fund more than 30 years ago to provide much-needed funds for the Art Gallery to acquire cornerstone works for its collection. The endowment fund continues to grow through annual donor and bequest support,’ Grant said.
2022 is an exciting year for the Art Gallery, with the scheduled completion of the new building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects SANAA. The expanded campus will almost double exhibition space and feature dynamic galleries, site-specific works by leading Australian and international artists, and extensive outdoor spaces for everyone to enjoy.
The health and safety of visitors is the top priority of the Art Gallery, which is closely following NSW Public Health Orders. Visitors to the Art Gallery are required to comply with Public Health Orders and are encouraged to plan their visit by reviewing the COVID-safe guidelines on our website.