Date of Creation:
The Boy with the Club Foot, A Dwarf
Musée du Louvre
Musée du Louvre
The Clubfoot evidences both a general 17th century interest in "low-life" subjects (thanks to Dutch and Flemish genre pictures and Caravaggio's paintings) and an interest in the "freakish": dwarves, cripples, jesters, and so forth, as well as Ribera's own personal interest in the bizarre.
Although this painting was originally known as A Dwarf, upon entering the collection of the Louvre in 1870, Ribera's painting was known as The Clubfoot. However, according to recent research, this title may be a misnomer.
In 2005, Dr. Franck Fitoussi, orthopedic surgeon at the Robert-Debré Hospital in Paris, examined the painting and arrived at a new conclusion. According to Fitoussi, the beggar in this painting is not afflicted with a club foot at all, but instead a condition that was unknown in 1870: cerebral palsy, a condition caused by legions on the brain as the result of a lack of oxygen in infancy, typically during a difficult birth.
The doctor claims that the boy's turned-out right foot and his strangely contorted right and wrist signify the partial paralysis often associated with cerebral palsy and which is often accompanied by some degree of mental retardation and difficulty speaking, which would account for the boy's note as well as his naïve grin.
It was long believed that The Clubfoot was commissioned from Ribera by the Duke of Medina de Torres, the viceroy of Naples during the 1630s and 40s and one of Ribera's major patrons during that period.
Subsequent research, however, has shown that in fact the painting was commissioned by a Flemish art dealer living in Naples, most likely one Ferdinand Vanden Eynden. The Flemish had long adored paintings of beggars and other such subjects and during the Baroque period often commissioned Spanish painters to execute such works.
Ribera shows his subject close-up, from a low perspective, thus giving the figure an unusual monumentality, as if he were painting a nobleman or prince.
The boy stands in a proud, confident posture, with his crutch slung over one shoulder like a musket and beams directly at the viewer: the boy could not be more pleased to be having his portrait painted.
Ribera may have been fascinated by "low-life," unusual subjects, but he always represented them with the utmost of human dignity and sympathy.
A truthful, life-like naturalism is characteristic of Ribera's style and in The Clubfoot, Ribera's painting is close to life that contemporary doctors were able to diagnose the subject's illness.
Color palette and use of light:
The Clubfoot dates from Ribera's mature period: unlike the heavy, dramatic chiaroscuro characteristic of Ribera's style pre-1632, this painting is bathed in a bright, illuminating light and the palette is far brighter and bolder as well.
This overall brightening of light and color as well as an increasingly loose brushstroke reveal the influence of Rubens, van Dyck, and the Venetians (especially Titian) during Ribera's mature period.
The one quality that unites all of these representations, however, is dignity: neither Murillo, nor Velázquez, nor Ribera ever mocks his subject. This is very different from Dutch or Flemish painting, for example, where such subjects are typically depicted with a sometimes downright mean-spirited buffoonery.
The Spanish artists were largely inspired to this more dignified depiction of such subjects by the art of the northern Italian artists, particularly paintings by Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio.
Annibale Carracci's The Bean Eater is a particularly pertinent example: Carracci presents his subject in a strictly factual, somber, dignified light, executing the painting in a style of unprecedented naturalism.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder's The Beggars is also related to this work.
Ribera's oeuvre reveals paintings of beggars, anonymous old philosophers and fictional representations of ancient intellectuals. Although these subjects may seem diverse, to say the least, all of these paintings have more than one thing in common: an interest in the depiction of strange, unusual subjects, the depiction of aged, sagging flesh, and, in general, a vaguely sinister tone.
The fact that Ribera was probably the most influential painter of the Spanish Baroque (even more influential than his far more famous compatriot, Velázquez) tends to be overshadowed by the fact that Ribera's often twisted, bizarre images have categorized the artist as a painter of the dark and bloody, and nothing more.
However, what many art enthusiasts do not know is that Ribera is much, much more than a mere painter of oddities. In fact, a closer look at Ribera's oeuvre reveals that the artist was as much a master of Baroque color, dynamism and grandeur as he was a master of Caraveggesque chiaroscuro and naturalism. Furthermore, Ribera's prints and paintings alike had an enormous impact on the development of Baroque art all over Europe.
Ribera may have been recognized as one of the most accomplished artists of the Baroque, but an utter dearth of contemporary documents or reliable sources concerning the artist's life and career meant that most of what was known about Ribera until the beginning of the 20th century was merely the stuff of legends.
Paradoxically, however, Ribera actually lived and worked in the Italian state of Naples for most of his life, stating that Spain was "a loving mother to foreigners and a very cruel stepmother to her own sons. "
Living in Italy, Ribera had exposure to classical and Renaissance art, making his artistic education far broader than any other Spanish artist, and subsequently his art also had a major influence on the development of Italian Baroque art.
Ribera can nonetheless be qualified as a Spanish artist, however, because during the 17th century Naples was actually a Spanish territory; in fact, his major patrons were not Italians, but the governing Spanish class as well as Flemish merchants within the city.
Like the other major painters of the Spanish Baroque, the majority of Ribera's paintings are devoted to religious subjects: pictures of the Virgin and child, biblical scenes, and, perhaps most famously, often grisly, gruesome depictions of the martyrdom of the saints. Unlike some of his compatriots, however, Ribera was not limited to religious paintings; his oeuvre also includes a fair number of mythological subjects, portraits, and even a series devoted to the five senses.
Furthermore, and most unusually for a Spanish artist, Ribera was quite adept at depicting the nude. This breadth of scope reveals the impact that living and working in Italy had on Ribera: the artist was free from the strict moral and social restrictions on art that existed in Spain, and was also exposed to a wider variety of influences, most notably classical art and masterpieces of the Renaissance.
To read more about Ribera and his artworks please refer to the recommended reading list below.
• Brown, Jonathan. Jusepe de Ribera: Prints and Drawings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973
• Darby, Delphine Fitz. "Ribera and the Blind Men. " The Art Bulletin 39.3 (Sept. 1957): 195-217.
• Felton, Craig, and William Jordan, Eds. Jusepe de Ribera, lo Spagnoletto, 1591-1652. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1982
• Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso, et al. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992
• Piper, Anson. "Ribera's 'Jacob' and the Tragic Sense of Life. " Hispanica 46.2 (May 1963): 279-282
• Scholz-Hänsel, Michael. Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. Cologne: Könemann, 2000
• Trapier, Elizabeth du Gué. Ribera. New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1952
• Wind, Barry. "A foul and pestilent congregation:" Images of "freaks" in Baroque art. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing, 1998
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