This extraordinary painting, one of Ribera's most dramatic and violent in terms of conception and composition, is one of the most important rediscoveries and additions to his work in recent years. It is of particular significance in his oeuvre, for it is probably his first rendering of a mythological subject and an extremely important example of his terribilità. Its enormous size reflects the fact that it is also Ribera's first treatment of the theme of the Giants or Titans of classical antiquity, and the precursor to two of his most famous works, the great Tityus and Ixion of 1632 today in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
The subject of the torture of Prometheus is one of the most famous of the Greek myths. The son of Iapetus, a Titan, Prometheus incurred the wrath of the Gods by stealing fire to give to mankind, whom he had just fashioned from clay. Jupiter punished him by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus where an eagle came every day to feed upon his liver. He was finally released by Hercules. The earliest writers
typically saw in him the role of rescuing man from his original ignorance, the symbol of fire the equivalent of the spark of divine wisdom that separated man from the animals. Later Christian writers saw in his legend a prefiguration of the Christian story: his punishment upon his rock foreshadowing the Crucifixion itself.
The present Prometheus should be considered as the earliest treatment of such a subject in a group of paintings from the 1630s, of which only three autograph works have survived. We know from Joachim Sandrart, writing in 1675, that Ribera painted for Lucas van Uffel of Amsterdam, a series of four paintings depicting the sufferings of four Titans of antiquity: Tityus, Ixion, Sisyphus and Tantalus. These were no doubt intended to form a group similar to those painted by Titian for Mary of Hungary in 1548-49. Uffels' pregnant wife was so discomfited upon seeing the paintings that she ordered them sent back, blaming them for the birth of her deformed child. The design of these paintings is not known for certain, but it is reasonable to assume that they may be reflected in a series of four later copies today preserved in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.1 Ribera returned to the subject of Ixion in a magnificent upright canvas, signed and dated 1632, today also in the Prado in Madrid (fig. 1).2 The same year he painted another Tityus also now preserved in the Prado, in which he adopted a compositional scheme very similar to the present painting, but in a horizontal format.3 Like Prometheus, Tityus was sentenced to a similar fate for his offences against the Gods, namely trying to rape Latona the mother of Apollo and Diana, only in his case two vultures instead of a single eagle were sent to devour his liver. In both paintings, the figures of Tityus and Prometheus are stretched right across the picture plane, the arms manacled to the rock, the back arched in agony and the face contorted in pain as the eagle feeds upon him. The Titan's naked body is picked out in dramatic chiaroscuro, only in the upper left of the present painting is there a hint of sky or relief from the all-enveloping rocks. The power and drama of these three great canvases make them among Ribera's most extraordinary paintings, their unforgiving naturalism and sheer size creating an immediate and unforgettable impact.
That the present Prometheus is the earliest and formative of these three masterpieces is shown by the survival of two preliminary drawings in pen and ink, today in the British Museum and in the Gabinetto Nazionale della Grafica in Rome.4 Initially considered as preparatory to the Madrid Ixion, closer inspection of the two sheets, especially that now in Rome (fig. 2), shows that the relative positions of the eagle and Prometheus are more closely akin to the present work, and that it was always conceived in an upright format. Brown5 was the first to date these drawings, especially the British Museum Tityus, earlier than the 1632 painting in the Prado, and all subsequent scholars have since followed this in assigning a slightly earlier date of circa 1630-31 for the present painting. This would suggest that Ribera painted first the present Prometheus and derived from it the two slightly later paintings in the Prado. There seems to be no particular reason to suppose that any of the three paintings were originally part of a larger set of the Four 'Damned' Titans, such as that painted for Van Uffel. This was a significant point in Ribera's career, for it also marks the period in which he seems to have decided to forsake the spiritual subject matter of the Counter Reformation for mythological subjects, and with them a more colourful palette that would gradually shed the fierce tenebrist naturalism of the 1620s which is still so evident in this canvas. Its enthusiastic portrayal of the gigantic may, as Perez Sanchez has suggested, be a reflection of Ribera's youthful trip to Bologna and his study of late mannerist works such as Pellegrino Tibaldi's Stories of Polyphemus in the Palazzo Poggi.6
1. See, for example, Spinosa, op. cit., 2003, p. 351, pp. B19-B22, reproduced.
2. ibid., p. 286, no. A122, reproduced. Canvas, 301 by 220 cm.
3. Canvas, 227 by 301 cm., exhibited Naples, 1992, no. 1.41, reproduced in colour in the catalogue p. 184.
4. See A. E. Perez Sanchez and N. Spinosa, L'opera completa di Jusepe de Ribera, Milan 1978, p. 102, nos. 75 and 75, and Spinosa, op. cit., 1984, p. 592, fig. 583.
5. Jusepe de Ribera, Prints and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Princeton and Harvard, 1973-74, pp. 158 and 166, nos. 7 and 20, reproduced.
6. In the exhibition catalogue, Ribera, New York, Metropolitan Museum, 1992, p. 95, under cat. no. 26.
Oil on canvas
Jusepe de José Lo Spagnoletto Ribera
London, Matthiesen, Fine Art Gallery, Around 1610: The Onset of Baroque, June 14-August 16, 1985, no. 30;
Naples, Castle of San Martino, Jusepe de Ribera, February 27-May 17, 1992, no. 1.42.
193.5 by 155.5 cm.; 76 1/4 by 61 1/4 in.
N. Spinosa, Ribera. L'opera completa, Milan 1978, p. 102;
J. Brown, 'Un Ribera enderezado', in Archivo Español de Arte, nos. 205-208, LII, 1979, pp. 174-8;
N. Spinosa, 'Un San Francesco inedito nel Palazzo del Pardo e alcune considerazioni sul catalogo dei dipinti del Ribera', in Scritti di Storia dell'Arte in Onore di Federico Zeri", 1984, vol. II, pp. 588-99, figs. 581, 582, as datable to circa 1632;
Matthiesen Fine Art, Ltd., Around 1610: The Onset of Baroque, exhibition catalogue, London 1985, no. 30, pp. 103-105;
C. Felton, "Ribera's Hercules Resting' Rediscovered", in Apollo, June 1990, pp. 374-381, as datable to 1622-24 and the earliest known classical subject by Ribera;
A.E. Perez Sanchez Jusepe de Ribera; 1591-1652, exhibition catalogue, Naples 1992, no. 1.42, pp. 184, 186, 421;
C. Felton, 'Out of the Shadows: Jusepe Ribera', in Apollo, 136, 1992, no. 367, p. 140-146;
R. Cohen, ' Jusepe de Ribera: an alternative view of his origins, apprenticeship, and early works', in Storia dell'Arte, vol. 85, 1995, pp. 445-458;
N. Spinosa, Ribera. L'opera completa, Naples 2003, p. 287, no. A124.
Probably Quintin Craufurd (1743-1819);
Probably his sale, London, Christie's, 27 January 1786, lot 92 ('Jusepe de Ribera, Prometheus large and capital');
Armand François Louis de Mestral de St. Saphorin (1738 - 1805);
His deceased sale, Vienna, J.V. Degen, 19 May 1806, lot 264;
Private collection, Milan, 1979;
With Matthiesen Fine Art, London;
With Eugene Victor Thaw, New York, from whom acquired by the present owner.