Paintings of philosophers occupy a privileged position in Ribera's long and productive career. As a young Spaniard around 1612, barely twenty years old and newly arrived in Rome, he made his mark among Caravaggio's followers by painting the classical sages dressed in tatters instead of their traditional flowing robes. He gave them the craggy, unshaven features of the faces in the Roman crowds. The new approach was justified by classical references to wise men who disdained their apparel and appearance. That philosophers were poor and ragtag was a popular saying that Petrarch put into poetry: 'Povera, e nuda, vai filosofia' (Poor and nude, thou goest, Philosophy). The verse was cited in the painter's manual, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, published in Rome in 1603.
It was remarkable, on the other hand, how strongly Ribera's philosophers recalled his portraits of the apostles, which he had based on Caravaggio's poor and humble saints. The thought was circulating, based on Erasmus, that beneath the apostles' gruff exteriors there beat hearts of wisdom. Caravaggio went so far as to paint an altarpiece for the Contarelli Chapel showing St. Matthew as a kind of Socrates, the sage whose face showed no signs of his genius. The idea was far ahead of its time, and the altarpiece was quickly replaced. In these same circumstances, the young Ribera dared to paint the apostles as ragged philosophers - and vice versa.
The present Philosopher is a major rediscovery that adds significantly to the reconstruction of an important successive phase in Ribera's development of the theme. In this mature work of circa 1630, painted in Naples, the artist focuses on the portrayal of a forceful personality. The black-bearded, vigorous thinker grips his books in both hands. X-ray examination reveals that the artist made a notable modification in the hand on the table, adding a separate brushstroke to indicate the half-hidden thumb. Though his face and hands are weathered from hard work, there is no suggestion of decrepitude. This is a notable development from Ribera's Roman-period philosophers. Now the leather cap and suit are in antique style and in good repair: the glimpse of a white shirt where the sleeve meets the shoulder is part of its design, not a tear (D. Fitz Darby, 'Ribera and the Wise Men', Art Bulletin, 44, 1962, p. 294). Heraclitus, the Greek who wept at human folly, has occasionally been proposed as the subject, yet it seems an unlikely identification for a philosopher who projects an upright, determined faith in his convictions.
This impressive composition was previously known only from copies, including one in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna formerly attributed to Luca Giordano. The Fielding Lewis Marshall Collection (Sotheby's, New York, January 1974, lot 105) included an example bearing a signature and the date 1634, it was published as a studio replica by Nicola Spinosa (Ribera, 2003, p. 350, B15). Five copies were listed by Oreste Ferrari ('L'iconografia dei filosofi antichi nella pittura del sec. XVII in Italia', in Storia dell'Arte , 57, 1986, p. 172). Of these, the most interesting by far was that contained within a series of six Philosophers, evidently based on Ribera, formerly in the Neapolitan collection of Conte Matarazzo di Licosa prior to their sale at Christie's London (21 July 1972, lot 181). The other five philosophers were sold in three different sales, including lot 180 in the aforementioned sale; lot 45 and 46 in the sale of 17 November 1972; and lots 13 and 14 in the sale of 23 March 1973.
In the opinion of Ferrari, Spinosa and others, the six Matarazzo philosophers constitute a reliable visual record of a lost series made by Ribera for the third Duke of Alcalá, Viceroy of Naples, 1629-31. The definitive identification of the Duke of Alcalá as the patron has yet to be confirmed by documents, but it seems certain that around this time (judging from the style and format of the original compositions), Ribera painted an important series comprising at least six different philosophers, including the present painting.
Fernando Enríque Afán de Ribera, third Duke of Alcalá (1583-1637), was an important statesman and a highly discriminating collector of art and antiquities, which were lavishly displayed in his palace, the Casa de Pilatos in Seville. Francisco Pacheco (Arte de la Pintura, 1638) writes in awestruck tones of these treasures, which included 'figures and heads by Ribera that seem alive, and all the others merely painted'. The posession of portraits of philosophers and men-of-letters was considered the mark of a man of means and taste. In their definitive study, J. Brown and R.L. Kagan ('The Duke of Alcalá: His Collection and Its Evolution,' in Art Bulletin, 69, 1987, p. 231-55) found four philosophers by Ribera cited in the inventories of 1632-6 and 1638. They suggested that one of these four untraced paintings may have corresponded to the composition of the present Philosopher, known to the authors from the Vienna copy.
Scholars hold widely varying views regarding the reconstruction of the Alcalá series, in particular the question of whether it comprised four, six or more philosophers. It is significant that the present painting is only the second autograph work that can be considered the model for one of the Matarazzo series of copies. (It should be noted that none of the known versions of this Philosopher are considered fully autograph by A.E. Perez Sanchez.) The other widely accepted example of a Matarazzo prototype represents Thales of Milesium and was recently discovered in a private collection in Madrid (exh. José de Ribera Bajo el signo de Caravaggio (1613-1633), no. 25, entry by Nicola Spinosa). A corresponding Philosopher (formerly known as 'Aesop') in the Prado Museum, Madrid, is accepted by some authorities, but considered a studio replica by Spinosa (Ribera, 2003, p. 350, B18).
We are grateful to Nicola Spinosa, John T. Spike and Craig Felton who, after inspection of the original, have independently confirmed the attribution of the present work to Ribera.