Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Special Birthday Greeting for My Mom

Today is my mother's birthday! As I was trying to figure out how to say "Happy Birthday" in a special way from so many miles away, I started to recall the visual images imprinted in my mind from all my studies and museum visits with "mother and child" themes.  There are so many to choose from starting with religious themes of Madonna and Child to more recent 19th century renditions of domestic scenes by Mary Cassatt or the idealized, romanticized impressions of the interaction of mother and children by Renoir. After much deliberation I decided to use this touching scene I had encountered at my last visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  This little detail I took of the Spanish artist Ribera's work seems to be the perfect visualization of the affection between a mother and child, there is a sense of warmth, care and protection, all the attributes we would need from a mother figure... Anyone who has experienced the same kind of loving from their own mother would be able to relate to this painting on a personal level but...  when we look at it from art historical view, we know that it is so much more than that...

"Happy Birthday Mom"

Jusepe de Ribera,The Clubfooted Boy,1642
(Musee de Louvre)
Jose Jusepe de Ribera is a very interesting artist from 17th century - a Spaniard born in Valencia who spent his artistic career in Naples, a Spanish territory ruled by Spanish viceroys. According to verbal tradition, for which there is no proof, it was believed he was trained in Valencia by Ribalta before moving to Italy where he lived for the rest of his life. He was influenced by Italian Baroque artists like Annibale Carracci, Caravaggio and Guido Reni, producing paintings for mostly Spanish as well as some Italian patrons depicting Spanish themes.  Ribera represents an interesting hybrid of the cross culturalization and internationalization of art in the 17th century where traveling and moving between courts had a big impact on art. 

Ribera, known as "Lo Spagnoletto" (the little Spaniard) was a very successful figure, heading a major artistic studio in Naples, admired by Spanish patrons and collectors through which his work would get back to Spain.  It is noted by Jonathan Brown that Ribera was one of the few painters of seventeenth century and one of only two Spaniards, whose work were collected by Philip IV. Although his work was being regarded so highly, Ribera never returned to his homeland fearing "I judge Spain is a pious mother to foreigners and a very cruel stepmother to her own native sons."1

Ribera was actually known for infusing strong naturalistic details into traditional figure compositions and especially for his gritty naturalism as can be noted on The Clubfooted Boywhich is thought to be owned by the Viceroy of Naples, Duke Medina de las Torres's wife Princess of Stigliano. 2  Although Ribera was a very versatile artist, who amalgamated the different styles he encountered from his exposure to different sources into his unique style, it is still particularly interesting to note the difference in style in this painting with the Virgin and Child at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which only seems to be painted four years later.  In the life size, full length portrait of a disfigured unknown boy, Ribera combines conventions of portraiture with genre painting.  The Clubfooted Boy includes a note in his hand asking for money for the love of God, which was meant to inspire charity as a way to ensure salvation according to Catholic reform. The Virgin and Child that looks so much like the tender moment of affection between a mother and her child is a private devotional image with the iconography to inform the viewer of the subject matter. The Christ child's right hand on his mother's shoulder is making the sign of the blessing, and Mary is shown wearing the traditional blue robe symbolizing heaven as well as the gauzy ribbon and the glowing auro around her head perhaps alluding to the halo that would have been present in earlier representations of the Madonna and Child.  According to the Philadelphia Museum curator Carl Strehlke the Virgin and Child shows a classizing moment in Ribera's career when he was looking to great earlier Italian artists like Raphael.3
·       The great appeal of a work of art, for me is the effect it can have on an individual even if they are not privy to the historical background or the iconography.  This can be especially challenging when confronting works of art with religious connotations but Madonna and Child images can be the one exception that can allow any viewer to engage with the work on a personal level.  Another great irony of looking at a work by Ribera as a tender maternal scene is the criticism he received in later centuries for his depictions bloody saints...
"Spagnoletto tainted       his brush with all of the      blood of all the sainted." 
                                                                                                                                                     -  Lord Byron
    But life is full of ironies and what is art if not a reflection of the human condition which itself  is full of incongruity?   

Jusepe de Ribera, Virgin and Child, 1646
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)


1 Jonathan Brown, Painting in Spain: 1500-1700, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998

2  C. Puglisi, Spanish Painting from El Greco to Goya Lecture Outline, 2012


  1. Yes i am totally agreed with this article and i just want say that this article is very nice and very informative article.I will make sure to be reading your blog more. You made a good point but I can't help but wonder, what about the other side? !!!!!!THANKS!!!!!! Birthday Wishes


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