Beautifully executed, solely in the red chalk that Ribera exploited so effectively throughout his career as a draughtsman, this sheet is delicately and precisely drawn, leaving the natural colour of the paper to enhance the strong chiaroscuro effects that animate the features of the face. This witty and intense image could indeed very well be executed from life. This aspect distinguishes the present work from other representations of grotesque and satirical heads, where the accentuated peculiarities of the figures' features play a much more significant role than in the present image. Here, the old lady's head is turned slightly to one side, but the viewer can still clearly see her fixed and determined stare. Her glance seems to be directed downwards, though, as Farina points out, only her right eye appears to be functional, while ‘the left eye socket reveals an empty void below a scarred eyebrow, presumably the result of a serious injury’. In Farina’s view, ’such precise and unusual details suggest that the sitter was someone actually known to Ribera’.
Contrary to the delicately refined finish seen in the figure's face, in areas such as the veil and the shoulders Ribera turned to a much broader execution, shadowed by controlled parallel lines. The beads of the rosary also perform an important function, filling an otherwise empty space and creating strong and luminous contrasts. The impact of this image is cleverly calibrated, though still spontaneous, and it is only at a second glance that one becomes aware of the two tiny figures, perhaps acrobats, sprawled over the top of the old woman’s veil, almost holding it in place, which transform the drawing from a simple portrait into a satirical and enigmatic, even somewhat disturbing, image of a type that is also found elsewhere amount the artist’s drawings. In the entry on this drawing in the recent exhibition catalogue and catalogue raisonné of Ribera’s drawings (see Literature), Cenalmor, Finaldi and Payne relate these strange figures on the woman’s head to the ‘Lilliputian’ figures in other ‘capriccio drawings’, dating from the late 1620s to the late 1630s, in particular the sheets depicting A masked Man with small figures clambering up his body, A Man wearing a large Cloak with a small naked Man holding a Banner seated on his Head, Man wearing a Phrygian Cap with small Figures climbing on it, and Grotesque Head with small Figures on his Hat, respectively in Madrid, New York, Philadelphia, and a Private Collection.1 Moreover Farina has suggested that these acrobatic figures could be inspired by sculptural sources, or by drawings for applied art such as Salviati’s Study of a Casket, in the Uffizi or Grotesque Studies in the Louvre.2
Another drawing with which the present work has been compared, both by Farina and by Cenalmor, Finaldi and Payne, is the Study of a Grotesque Head with Goitres and Pointed Ear, a red chalk drawing in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (fig. 1).3 Brown considered that drawing to be made from life, from the same model as Ribera's etching, the Large Grotesque Head (fig. 2).4 In discussing the Fitzwilliam drawing in relation to the artist’s two etchings, the Small Grotesque Head and the Large Grotesque Head, Farina identifies the date of 1622 on the first etching as ‘a chronological point of reference for this type of work’, and argues, on stylistic grounds, for a dating of the present sheet to the mid-1620s. Cenalmor, Finaldi and Payne, however, believe our drawing should be dated to the late 1630s ‘on account of its expressive freedom and analogous subject matter to such drawings as the Grotesque Head with small Figures on his Hat and the Grotesque Head of a bearded Man wearing a Phrygian Cap’’.5
Ribera was clearly fascinated by grotesque physiognomies, in a way that links him to the Leonardesque tradition of grotesque heads, as well as to the eternal human fascination with anomalies and oddities. The present sheet, somehow a more realistic image than most of the artist’s other drawings and etchings of similar subjects, seems to add a more intimate and emotional dimension to Ribera’s powerful sense of satire and the grotesque.
1. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, inv. no. D8743; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. no. 1981.395; Philadelphia, Museum of Fine Art, inv. no. 1984-56-8; Private collection; Jusepe de Ribera, The Drawings, op. cit., 2016, cat. nos. 62, 110, 111, 132, respectively
2. Florence, Uffizi, Gabinetto di Disegni e Stampe, inv. no. 1612 E; Paris, Louvre, inv. no. RF536; Farina, op. cit., 2014, p. 477, fig. 9, p. 478, fig. 10
3. Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum, inv. no. PD.26-1958; Jusepe de Ribera, The Drawings, op. cit., 2016, cat. no. 16, reproduced
4. See Literature, 2016, p. 88, p. 68, fig. 7.1
5. Respectively: Private collection, and Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, inv. no. WA 1863.1480; Jusepe de Ribera, The Drawings, op. cit., 2016, cat. nos. 132, 133
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