This previously unpublished painting may well be one of the long-lost portraits of philosophers by Ribera which were owned by Don Fernando Afan de Ribera y Enríquez (1570-1637), third Duke of Alcalá, who was Viceroy of Naples in the early 1630s. Alcalá was one of Ribera's most important and influential early patrons, and a series of philosopher paintings by the artist is mentioned in the inventory of his Seville house, Casa de Pilatos, made after his death in 1637. Until 1971, when they were auctioned at Christie's, Rome, a group of six philosopher portraits, including a replica of the present work, were in the Matarazzo di Licosa collection in Naples, where they had always been thought to be Ribera's originals. Their sale that year made them available for scrutiny for the first time to scholars, whereupon it became manifest that they were copies after lost originals; the whereabouts of the Alcalá paintings were then unknown. Prior to the appearance of the present work, two other autograph works had generally been associated with the original series, the so-called Archimedes, in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (Inv. no. 1121), which is probably, in fact, Democritus, and A Philosopher, in the collection of the University of Arizona Art Museum at Tucson. A copy of the Tucson picture is in the Matarazzo group, which is the basis for its association with the Alcalá paintings. The Prado painting is the same height as our picture, but somewhat narrower, and it has been suggested that it might have been trimmed at the sides. The Tucson painting's dimensions are similar to those of the present work. Another pair of paintings, Pythagorus and Heraclitus, acquired in 1991 by the Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, also of similar dimensions, may also have formed part of the series (see A. E. Pérez Sánchez and N. Spinosa, in the catalogue of the exhibition Ribera 1591-1652, Madrid, 1992, nos. 30 and 31).
Ribera's portrayal of a series of Greek philosophers would seem to have historical precedent in Federigo da Montefeltro's studiolo, whose walls were decorated with idealized philosopher effigies by Piero della Francesca, Pedro Berruguete and Justus of Ghent. In his series, Ribera has used the convention of half-length representations as used in Spanish Apostolados, replacing the likenesses of the saints with individualized, portrait-like depictions of philosophers in the garb of common street beggars. This formula seems to have proven successful, since Neapolitan agents acting on behalf of the Prince of Liechtenstein commissioned Ribera in 1636 to paint another similar series (six of the original twelve paintings in the commission had been delivered in Vaduz by 1637, and these were not dispersed until 1952). At least nine replicas of our painting are known, all of inferior quality. These have been variously identified as Artistotle or Euclid, but a precise identification of the philosopher portrayed has so far proved elusive. There is a mention in the 1637 inventory to a 'Philosopher with a compass', which could refer either to the Prado or Tucson paintings or indeed the present lot.
On the basis of a transparency, Professor Nicola Spinosa confirms that this is an autograph work, of superior quality to the other known versions, and datable to 1630-2 (private communication).