Jusepe de Ribera, also known as José, was a leading 17th century Spanish painter noted for his dramatic realism and his depiction of religious and mythological subjects. He was probably the most influential painter of the Spanish baroque period, but his unconventional images categorised the artist as a painter of dark and sinister subjects. His work presented mutilated bodies, deformed children and faces contorted with pain.
His interest in the human form greatly influenced his work; however, Ribera was more than a mere painter of oddities. His paintings include biblical scenes and a series based on mythological subjects, and portraits of real and imaginary figures.
Born in Valencia in 1591, Ribera's father was a shoemaker who intended his son for a literary career, but he neglected his studies, preferring to concentrate on his passion for art.
Longing to study art in Italy, he made his way to Rome in 1611.
It is generally assumed that Ribera was the apprentice of the celebrated artist, Francisco Ribalta. Legend claims that he left Ribalta's studio and, subsequently, Spain, following an illicit affair with Ribalta's daughter. Legends abound from this period of Ribera's life: according to one source, a wealthy cardinal discovered the poor young art student drawing frescoes on a Roman palace. Ribera is said to have rejected the offer of the cardinal's support, claiming he needed the stimulus of necessity in order to produce his art.
He remained fiercely proud of his Hispanic roots and Italian artists soon began calling him Spagnoletto, - the little Spaniard.
Despite a substantially high income, Ribera is said to have lived beyond his means and in 1616, he moved to Naples, supposedly in order to avoid his creditors. In the same year he married Caterina Azzolino, the daughter of Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, a Neapolitan painter whose connections in the art world helped to establish Ribera as a major figure within the Naples art sector. The Kingdom of Naples was then part of the Spanish Empire and Ribera's Spanish nationality aligned him with the small Spanish governing class, which included important collectors and dealers of art. The artist quickly attracted the attention of the Viceroy, the Duke of Osuna, who gave him a number of major commissions. Few paintings survive from this era, but this was the period in which most of his best work was produced. Although Ribera never returned to Spain, many of his paintings were brought back by returning members of the Spanish governing class.
He was said to have been in serious financial difficulties when he died in 1652.