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© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier
This crippled Neapolitan beggar is holding a paper authorizing him to beg, which reads in Latin: "Give me alms for the love of God." He takes pride in having his portrait painted by the artist and his picture indeed has the monumental size and dignity of a prince's likeness. He stands against a clear and luminous sky, a token of Ribera's evolution during his period of maturity under the influence of the masters of Bologna.
A portrait of a beggar
In a landscape with vast skies overhead stands a beggar with a clubfoot (a deformed foot, which no longer rests on the heel). In all likelihood a dwarf - as implied by the painting's title before it entered the collections of the Louvre, The Dwarf - he faces the viewer with a gap-toothed grin. His crutch slung over his shoulder like a weapon as if to amuse the spectator, he seems proud to have caught people's attention. In his hand, he also holds a paper on which the following line is inscribed in Latin: "Give me alms for the love of God." This is to inform us not that he is mute, but that he has the right to beg. Such a paper was a sort of permit required of beggars in Naples. Some have interpreted these lines as an appeal to Christian charity in the spirit of the Counter Reformation, which liked to recall the necessity of practicing acts of mercy. It is probable, however, that Ribera's main intention here was simply to paint the portrait of a beggar. He had a fancy for humble figures from the poorer populace, like Caravaggio before him. He also shared with his fellow countryman Velázquez a more specific interest in cripples and dwarfs.
A commission from a Flemish dealer
Ribera painted this picture in Naples in 1642. Contrary to long-standing belief, it appears not to have been commissioned by the viceroy of Naples, Duke of Medina de las Torres, but by a Flemish dealer. Flemish painters had accustomed their countrymen to representations of beggars (The Beggars by Brueghel the Elder, Louvre, r.f.730) and Flemish dealers ordered paintings of this kind from other Spanish artists as well, particularly from Murillo (The Young Beggar, Louvre, Inv.933).
Born in the region of Valencia, Ribera left Spain for Italy very early. He resided at first in Rome, where he took up with the followers of Caravaggio. In 1616, he settled in Naples where he stayed until his death in 1652. Very soon, he became the town's most sought-after painter, concentrating on religious compositions in which he attached great importance to the representation of old and ailing bodies.
Luminosity and monumentality
This piece belongs to the period of Ribera's maturity during which he evolved from a Caravaggesque tenebrism to a luminous style under the influence of the masters of Bologna (Annibale Carraccio, Guido Reni) and of Venice (Titian). In this full-length portrait of a beggar, he has presented his subject close up and from a low angle so as to endow him with dignity and make him appear monumental. He would not have painted a king or a saint any differently. As in the period when he was influenced by Caravaggio, Ribera chose here to bring out the plasticity of forms by contrasting shadow and light on the face and hands. However, the beggar stands againt a backdrop that is no longer the dark background of the Spanish painter's earlier pictures, but a landscape over which a bright sky unfolds. The canvas is filled with an almost natural light. Contrasting with the vibrant blue of the sky, the figure of the beggar is painted with a limited palette of muted colors. Ribera's brushwork is loose.
BibliographyGerard Powell Véronique, in Écoles espagnole et portugaise, catalogue du département des peintures du musée du Louvre, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2002, pp. 228-231.
Sullivan Edward J., "Ribera's Clubfooted Boy : image and symbol", in Marsyas, Studies in the history of Art, XIX, 1977-1978, pp. 17-21.
Spinosa Nicolas, Ribera, Naples, 2003, pp. 192, 200-201, 328, 246.
Jusepe de RIBERA (Játiva, 1591-Naples, 1652)
Oil on canvas
H. 1.64 m; W. 0.94 m
Louis La Caze bequest, 1869
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