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: Salvator Rosa's Saint Humphrey


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In the painting recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, depicting a hermit in meditation, the artist’s aim was to suggest the spiritual energy and agitation that lay beneath the ascetic’s outward appearance of immobile concentration.1 This he has achieved by imbuing the atmosphere with an intense and somehow, urgent mood. Two technical devices contribute to this effect: first, a dramatic light raking the figure from the left; and second, a subtly uneasy color scheme in which silvery brown and leathery tones in the foreground are contrasted with strong and richly tinted hues in the turbulent sky and distant landscape. Both the treatment of paint and the conception of the subject are those of the 17th-century painter, Salvator Rosa, an attribution which is confirmed by the signature in the lower left. Until its recent appearance in 1962 in the London sale rooms, this picture had been lost.2 Shortly thereafter it was published by Professor Luigi Salerno, who pointed out that it had been exhibited in 1811 in London, entitled Saint Onuphrius, sometimes called Saint Humphrey in English.3Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) was the most outstanding landscape and battle painter of the 17th century, but he was anxious that his contemporaries should acknowledge the merit of his large-scale figure pieces as well. The present acquisition illustrates this very aspect of his work—one that is frequently overlooked, and one that is not often represented in American collections. Further, it is an addition to the number of works in this country attributed to Rosa which are indisputably autograph and whose superior quality demonstrates his capacity as a painter. Consequently the Saint Humphrey is a valuable and imaginative purchase.The Institute’s new acquisition reflects a stylistic development that took place in Rosa’s painting about 1660. At that time, he produced a number of works that climaxed his efforts to be recognized as a figure painter. In these compositions the poses, facial types, the intentional suppression of superfluous detail, and the less frequent emphasis on attractive, but gratuitous, painterly effects imitated the classicizing conventions Poussin had been using so successfully to instill a sense of restraint and sobriety into his own pictures. In order that the Institute’s painting may be seen in its proper perspective, it is necessary to outline the history and causes of Rosa’s stubborn determination—in the face of much contemporary criticism—to be classed as a programmatic painter, that is, as a painter of religious, allegorical, or historical themes.Rosa was born in Naples in 1615. He learned to paint by imitating the work of his brother-in-law, Francesco Fracanzano and, more importantly, by improvising landscape sketches after nature directly in oils.4 Later he worked under the battle painter, Aniello Falcone.5 In 1635, when he was only twenty, he went to Rome, then the most lucrative and active center for artists in all Europe.6 Like most painters arriving there as a stranger, he was received by friends attached to the household of a prelate from his own city. The young artist could expect his fellow countrymen to introduce him to patrons in Rome’s ecclesiastical and princely circles.7 But contrary to custom and continuing a practice of his indigent youth in Naples, Rosa chose to sell his pictures in the shops of modest dealers as well, rather than depending exclusively on orders from rich collectors or church authorities. These dealers, the bottegari, specialized in small, inexpensive paintings of still lifes and, particularly, of genre scenes whose subjects were taken from everyday life. A taste for such pictures was thought to be less cultivated than that for works with more pretentious subjects. The Italian collector and critic, unlike his northern counterpart, traditionally preferred programmatic subjects to any form of unidealized narrative painting. Further, Italian painters ever since the Renaissance had emphasized the erudition that inspired their works in order to underline the superior status of the profession. Thus the bamboccianti, as the genre painters were called, were considered unintellectual craftsmen who turned out merely decorative paintings rather then artists in the grander sense that the term had come to imply. While it would be an exaggeration to say that genre painting was tainted as a second-class art form, it is true that it was not valued as serious painting in Italy.Once established in Rome, Rosa soon developed a landscape style as original and appealing as the one worked out by Claude Lorrain at the same time in the same city. Claude had molded the landscape motifs and light effects observed in the Roman countryside into calm and restrained compositions, well keyed to the dignified themes he chose from classical antiquity and Biblical history. Rosa did not aspire to such Olympian moods, and he was less concerned with integrating his tiny figures and their actions with the setting. Significantly, the subjects he depicted—for instance, the bustling activity of a harbor, to a scene with figures clothed in heavy drapery to suggest a vaguely classical tone—were of subordinate interest to him. His landscapes only distantly evoke any first-hand observations of nature. They were put together from a stock repertoire of motifs in a way that allowed the painter great freedom to improvise, bathing his composition in a luxuriant light and working his brush quickly and loosely through a dazzling range of colors.8These landscapes won admiration for their picturesque and suggestive atmosphere and for their technical mastery. No one denied their quality or originality. They enjoyed an enormous vogue in the 18th as well as the 19th century as those eras came to place emphasis respectively on a fluent mastery of painterly techniques and on the moods of human temperament thought to be reflected in nature. But it was clear to the 17th-century critic, who also applauded them, that Rosa’s landscapes were mainly grand decorative pieces, suspiciously reminiscent, despite their enlarged size, of the goals attributed to genre painters. Thus when Rosa castigated the bamboccianti, in his satire on painting, written in the early 1640s, characterizing them as uneducated painters incapable of anything more than an apish imitation of what they saw in the streets, one feels he was trying to dissociate himself from origins with which he thought himself too closely identified.Rosa’s other great specialty was battle painting. In these he was able to make an adept transition from a purely decorative treatment to what his age considered a more estimable programmatic handling. His early essays in the form, such as the Battle dates 1637 in the Mostyn-Owen Collection in London, are very close to the compositions of his Neapolitan master, Aniello Falcone. Saxl astutely described Falcone’s decorative pictures as battle-pieces without heroes, because they depict unidentifiable military skirmishes, in which no single figure or group of figures is the focus of attention.9 Waterhouse has noted that when Rosa got to Rome, he must have seen Pietro da Cortona’s Battle of Issus, probably painted about 1635.10 Thereafter Rosa gave his own battles a more monumental appearance by increasing their size, arranging the figures in a frieze-like pattern across the foreground, and dressing them in antique armor.11 After 1652 his production of battlepieces dwindled but their heroic character immediately reappeared in such a history piece as The Martyrdom of Regulus in Richmond, Virginia. In that distinguished painting, the artist’s genius for color and free brushwork was successfully integrated with a restrained composition whose figures are arranged in conventional 17th-century classsicized poses.12Rosa’s landscapes, however, were, at first sight, less amenable to such a transformation. He was unable to find any expedient stylistic devices whose effect would be the same as those by which he had brought his battlepieces into line with programmatic tastes. For instance, he could not by temperament confine himself to Claude’s practice of imbuing an otherwise neutral landscape scene with a meditative solemnity that complemented the dignity of his small figures. Annoyed that his reputation came more and more to depend on his accomplishments as a painter of decorative landscapes, Rosa at one moment in the 1650s threatened to give up such work entirely. Happily this was a dramatic pose, not his real intent. He continued to turn out landscapes in his mature years. In one of great excellence, The Finding of Moses now in Detroit, painted, it seems, toward the end of the 1650s, Rosa finally succeeded in firmly welding an allegorical content to his landscape technique.13 This he achieved by generating in the passages of billowing clouds and agitated landscape a feeling of excitement to suggest that the prophet’s rescue from the Nile was a momentous event.The Martyrdom of Regulus, The finding of Moses, and a pair of paintings in the Chrysler Collection in New York, The Baptism of the Eunuch and John the Baptist Preaching, can justly be considered masterworks of programmatic painting, but, interestingly, the artist refused to be content with the solutions embodied in them. Beginning late in the 1650s, he produced a series of upright compositions in which his usually expansive landscape settings were reduced to constricted backdrops for life-sized figures that in pose and characterization came more and more to imitate Poussin’s classicizing style, a convention that was thought most fitting for the presentation of grave and elevated subjects. Particularly representative of this development are The Nursing of Jupiter, presently in a private collection, Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites in Copenhagen, and Rosa’s unique series of seven chapel paintings now in Chantilly.14 The Institute’s picture belongs stylistically to this trend and is thus datable to the years around 1660.These works were unpopular with his contemporaries, who claimed that Rosa’s real talents—his inventiveness, feeling for color, and free brushwork—were vitiated when he tried to paint large figures. Then, his critics claimed, he revealed an insecure hand in drawing the nude, an inability to render movement correctly, plus a wooden handling of drapery.15 It is true that these idiosyncrasies, glossed over in his very small-scale figures, spring glaringly to the eye in these large compositions. In this painting, for example, the ropy modeling of the arms and legs, as well as the way the upper torso is turned, can be said to be, at best, only schematic. Such faults were owing to Rosa’s early training under Falcone, who had not only taught him to paint battlepieces but also tutored him in anatomy. Rosa’s early nude drawings indicate that he inherited from a deficient master precisely those weaknesses cited by his critics in the 1660s; and once having been learned, they stayed with the artist for the rest of his life.16The attacks enraged Rosa who refused to acknowledge any such shortcomings.17 In keeping with his obstinate character, he continued with the style. But stubbornness was not his sole motive. In deriding his technical limitations the critics overlooked the distinctive personal interpretation the artist brought to all his figure pieces, even the most stilted. Rosa had aspired, in the first place, to paint allegories and subject pieces not only to enhance his status, but also to express a personal philosophy. He was a fractious intellectual in search of a vehicle for his ideas. This was certainly a crucial reason for his persisting in this late style which may not immediately display his talents to their best advantage but does embody his strongly held sentiments. Rosa’s temperament, unique among 17th-century artists, permeates all his subject paintings, but especially these late pictures.From his early maturity, his exceptional character inspired his actions and attitudes. Within a few years of his arrival in Rome in 1635, Rosa had eschewed the small amount of routine patronage he enjoyed and set himself up in a house of his own. His life thereafter was astonishingly independent and self-advertising. He painted only what he pleased, when he wished, and then offered it to whom he chose at prices that he decided upon. Alone among his contemporaries, he regularly used only the annual public exhibitions in Rome to display his paintings and cultivate a public for them. Such behavior was consistent with his enormous scorn for established institutions and routine methods. His character has been exaggeratedly said to foreshadow the Romantic era’s notion of the artist at odds with his society. More accurately, Rosa was inspired by virulent cynicism—a disenchantment that varied, depending on his mood, from an attitude of simple criticism, to one of pessimism and even misanthropy. Contrary to the misleading inscription on his self-portrait in London, which could be translated: Better to Be Silent than to Speak Out, Rosa was more than willing to articulate his jaundiced views of the world. They appear in the verse satires which he composed and recited for the learned and worldly society which frequented his houses both in Florence and Rome, and they found frequent expression in his paintings. The most famous of these, a painting exhibited in the 1650s, showed Fortune’s benefits poured on beasts who trample underfoot the attributes of the arts and learning. It was interpreted to be do forthright an attack on the policies of papal patronage that Rosa had to be extricated from the resulting imbroglio by one of the Pope’s brothers.18 Less sensational but no less pointed were the themes of other paintings, like Vienna’s Justice Taking Refuge Among the Peasants or a lost Arion Rescued by a Dolphin in which the animals of the sea save the poet from his fellow man; or the Fitzwilliam’s pessimistic allegory Humanitatism Fragilitas in which an infant traces out a gloomy précis of man’s fate. Part of Rosa’s cynicism embraced the notion that society and its material preoccupations were superfluous and, implicitly, corrupting. According to this view, the wise man was the ascetic who minimized his dependence on material objects. Such was the Greek philosopher, Diogenes, whom Rosa painted more than once in the act of discovering that even a drinking bowl is a needless encumbrance.19 Alternatively, the hero was the man who withdrew from society altogether. Such was Saint Paul the Hermit, the subject of a picture in the Brera, Milan, or the present Saint Humphrey who, according to legend, spent sixty years in the wilderness without seeing another man.While the Institute’s new acquisition could superficially pass as a religious painting, and thus have found a buyer more easily in the 17th century, it is not a pious picture in the ordinary 17th-century sense. That is, it was not designed to make explicit a doctrine or devotional attitude of the Church. Instead it epitomizes Rosa’s commitment to a severe view of life; one that was sometimes stoical, but never notably religious. He has brought to the conception of this Saint Humphrey an intensity reflecting his own earnest and deprecating attitude toward the world.Michael Mahoney, Museum Curator, National Gallery of Art, has made a special study of Salvator Rosa’s drawings.Endnotes
  1. Oil on canvas. 78 x 46 1/2 inches. The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 64.2
  2. Sotheby’s, 11 July 1962, No. 122.
  3. L. Salerno, Salvator Rosa (Florence, 1963).
  4. G. B. Passeri, Vite de’ Pittori. . . (Rome, 1772). Edited by J. Hess in “Römische Forschungen der Biblioteca Herziana,” XI (Leipzig and Vienna, 1934), p. 386.
  5. Baldinucci, De Dominici, and Pascoli in their separate biographies of Rosa are unanimous in stating that he was Falcone’s student. Passeri, Rosa’s personal friend whose information is to be preferred to the three posthumous and oftentimes fanciful commentators first mentioned above, does not speak of Falcone. In this case, however, the three later writers’ assertions are confirmed by the stylistic evidence to be found first in Rosa’s early battlepieces and second in his drawings. These drawings, which are genre figures and nude studies clearly imitate Falcone’s own style, are discussed in a catalogue of Rosa’s drawings which the writer is presently submitting as a doctoral study at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. That same study has brought to light no evidence to contradict Passeri’s silence on the subject of a relationship between Rosa and Ribera. Despite Baldinucci, De Dominici, and Pascoli’s claim that Rosa was Ribera’s student, it appears more probable that the young man absorbed certain aspects of Ribera’s style from Fracanzano who was influenced by the Spaniard’s Neapolitan work.
  6. Writing in 1666, Rosa says he left Naples in 1635 and never returned. (U. Limentani, Poesie e Lettere. . . [Florence, 1950], p. 142, n. 4). However, all his biographers allude to a return journey to Naples before 1640. Documentary evidence confirms this visit (Salerno, p. 92) which must have been brief and unimportant for the artist himself seems to have forgotten it. It undoubtedly fell before the autumn of 1638, at which time or shortly thereafter Rosa accompanied his patron, Cardinal Brancacci, to the latter’s new see in Viterbo (Passeri, p. 387, n. 3. Chacón (or Ciaconio), Vite Pontificum Romanorum [Rome, 1677], vol. IV, col. 591).
  7. F. Haskell’s Patrons and Painters. . .(London, 1963), contains an illuminating account of the normal system of patronage in Rome at this time and expertly cites Rosa’s career as the exception to the rule. Rosa differed from the expected procedure at almost every point.
  8. Galleria Estense, Modena. Oil on canvas, 143 x 176 cms., monogrammed. This painting and its pendant, Erminia Carving Tancred’s Name on a Tree, were delivered to the Duke of Modena in the autumn of 1640. (A. Venturi, La R. Galleria Estense. . . [Modena, 1882], pp. 218 f and documents II-V).
  9. F. Saxl, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, III (1939-40), 70-87.
  10. E. Waterhouse, Italian Baroque Painters (New York, 1963), pp. 52f and 184f, pl. 52.
  11. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Oil on canvas, 229 x 345 cms., signed, monogrammed, and dated 1645. The date, rendered in Roman numerals, conceivably reads 1646.
  12. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Williams Fund. Oil on canvas, 60” x 86 1/2”, signed.
  13. The Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, Detroit. Oil on canvas, 121 x 205 cms. See following note 14.
  14. The Nursing of Jupiter. Oil on canvas, 198 x 132 cms. A drawing in a Chicago private collection for this painting further confirms Rosa’s close study of Poussin at this time. In that drawing a figure of a man in the background is inspired by Poussin’s Martyrdom of St. Erasmus in the Vatican. Other drawings for the Jupiter surprisingly indicate that the painting is contemporary with the Detroit Moses. Thus Rosa worked in two entirely different styles simultaneously. A study of the drawings suggests that both the Jupiter and Moses date toward the last year of the 1650s.
  15. Passeri, op. cit., p. 396.
  16. The drawings documenting Rosa’s derivation of his nude style from Falcone’s work are those mentioned above in note 5.
  17. Passeri, op. cit., p. 396.
  18. U. Limentani, La Satira nel Seicento (Milan and Naples, 1961), p. 224.
  19. Galleria Palatina, Florence, The Philosophers’ Grove. Copenhagen, Statens Museum, Diogenes.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Salvator Rosa
    Italian (1615-1673)
    Saint Humphrey, c. 1660
    Oil on canvas, 78” x 46 1/2”
    Collection of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  2. Salvator Rosa
    Italian (1615-1673)
    Oil on canvas, 143 x 176 cms.
    Courtesy of the Galleria Estense, Modena.
  3. Salvator Rosa
    Italian (1615-1673)
    Battle, 1645
    Oil on canvas, 229 x 345 cms.
    Courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
    Wolfrum Photograph.
  4. Salvator Rosa
    Italian (1615-1673)
    The Death of Regulus
    Oil on canvas, 60” x 86 1/2”
    Collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Williams Fund, 1959.
  5. Salvator Rosa
    Italian (1615-1673)
    The Finding of Moses
    Oil on canvas, 121 x 205 cms.
    Collection of The Detroit Institute of Fine Arts.
  6. Salvator Rosa
    Italian (1615-1673)
    The Nursing of Jupiter
    Oil on canvas, 198 x 132 cms.
    Private collection
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Source: Michael Mahoney, "Salvator Rosa's Saint Humphrey," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 53, no. 2 (September, 1964): 54-67.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009