DescriptionSALVATOR ROSA (Italian 1615 - 1673)
Penitent Saint William of Maleval, circa 1645-50
Oil on canvas
30 x 24-1/4 inches
Signed on reverse on original canvas, Sal. Rosa
Collection label verso: printed family crest of the Earls of Caledon, "Per Mare Per Terra," with handwritten number 20.
(possibly) Sale, London (Peter Coxe), May 12, 1801, lot 30 (not ill., seller and buyer unknown) as Salvator Rosa. The Holy Soldier. 2-1/2 h. x 2 w. (size annotations in a copy of the sales catalogue preserved at the Courtauld Institute, London);
Du Pre Alexander, 2nd Earl of Caledon (1777-1839), elected a Representative Peer in 1804, Governor of the Cape Colony (British South Africa) in 1807, Caledon House, County Tyrone, Ireland, and thence by descent;
Acquired by descent to his son, James Du Pre Alexander, 3rd Earl of Caledon (1812-1855), elected a Representative Peer in 1841; in addition to his country house in Ireland he maintained an apartment at 5 Carlton House Terrace, London, where Waagen saw the painting prior to publishing his book in 1857 (see Literature below);
Acquired by descent to his son, James Alexander, 4th Earl of Caledon (1846-1898), elected a Representative Peer in 1877;
Acquired by descent to his son, Eric James Desmond Alexander, 5th Earl of Caledon (1885-1968);
Sale "The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Caledon, removed from 5, Carlton House Terrace, S.W.1, Pictures by Old Masters," [5th Earl of Caledon's sale including 98 Old Master paintings including two other Rosas], Christie's, London, June 9, 1939, lot 68 (not ill.) as Saint William of Aquitaine bound to a Tree in a landscape (29 ½ x 24 in.);
Sale, Sotheby's, New York, January 29, 2005, lot 45;
Dr. Gustav Waagen, Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain, London, John Murray, vol IV (supplement) of 4 vols, 1857, p. 149 as being displayed in the Earl of Caledeon's "ante-room."
The seventeenth-century Neapolitan artist Salvator Rosa was the Italian Rembrandt. Almost exactly contemporary with the great Dutch painter, Rosa was equally versatile, innovative, and fiercely independent. He painted portraits and probative self-portraits, atmospherically charged landscapes, battle scenes, genre scenes with soldiers or banditti gambling, and histories and religious pictures. These, including the present work in which the soldier St. William of Maleval is shown tied to a tree atoning for his licentious past, often featured penitent souls within landscapes that are just as tortured. Here Rosa goes far beyond Rembrandt. With their ragged rocks, blasted trees, hair-raising foliage and caverns of pitch darkness, Rosa's landscapes are often more desolate, more terribly beautiful than the people in them. Even though Rosa worked hard to be best known as a figure painter, it was his landscapes that made him famous. Also like his Dutch counterpart, Rosa was a compulsive draftsman whose range of scribbly, swirling, free drawing styles seemed to change with his mood and never quite kept pace with his imagination; and he was an inventive etcher, although unlike Rembrandt, he seemed to have been less patient with the printmaking process. Instead of fussing over multiple states Rosa generally produced just one or two states for the 100 odd plates he worked. And like Rembrandt, but with a more violent sensibility perhaps, Rosa managed to give his Baroque subject matter an overwhelming emotional charge which penetrates beyond tenebrism and paint application to something deeply unsettling but ineffable. His work simmers with melancholy, a sense of never being quite good enough, possibly even a degree of self loathing that made it irresistible to the British Romantics from the mid-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. His "interest in witchcraft, in monstrous critters, in brooding philosophers," as one writer put it, made him both temperamentally and artistically the perfect proto-Romantic poster boy for the age of Byron, Wright of Derby, Fuseli, and of course, Goya, when Rosa became an even greater celebrity than he had been in his own time. And although the Rosa craze is no longer in full swing, his work has that persistent edge that transcends vogues of aesthetic fashion.
The subject of the present painting by Rosa is best known through a tremendously popular etching he made approximately a decade after the painting of circa 1645-50. During the summer and autumn of 1661, Rosa sojourned at Castello di Strozzavolpe in Siena, the Tuscan residence of his friend and longtime literary inspiration, Giovanni Battista Ricciardi, who had studied philosophy at the University of Pisa. At the home of his erudite friend, Rosa produced Saint William (Bartsch 1; Etching and drypoint, signed SRosa in the plate at lower right, overall 13 7/16 x 11 5/16 in. (34.2 x 28.8 cm)) and its pendant Saint Albert (Bartsch 2), the first of his seventeen large subject etchings. As Richard Wallace has noted, these etchings display a "savage romanticism and varied, expressive use of the medium" which are found in abundance in the present painting as well. The inspiration for the subject of William of Maleval, a soldier repentant for his gambling, cheating, and womanizing past, may have originally come through Ricciardi, particularly since Saint William's biography has both a Pisan and Sienese connection. (Rosa produced his painting of this subject during the nine-year period he lived in Tuscany and had struck up his lifelong friendship with Ricciardi.) The story of Saint William begins with his repentance. Upon seeing the error of his ways, he undertook a first pilgrimage to Rome, and a second to the Holy Land. Upon his return to Tuscany in 1153, he was named abbot of a monastery near Pisa, but unable to maintain discipline there, retired to a hermitage on Mt. Bruno that developed into a monastery, where he was again unsuccessful as an abbot. He returned to the solitary life at Malevalle, near Siena, where he attracted two disciples, Albert and Renaldo (Rinaldo?), who continued to follow William's rule after his death in 1157. In the early 13th century, William's followers, known as the Guillemites or barefoot friars, spread through Italy into France and Germany. Gregory IX replaced their harsh rule with the Rule of St. Benedict, and the order, now extinct, was divided among the Benedictines and the Augustinian canons. St. William of Maleval became known as the patron of armorers.
In comparing Rosa's painting of St. William with his later treatment of the subject in etching, one can see how the artist made significant changes to compensate for the fact he was working with line rather than color and paint. For example, in the painting, the clump of trees to which the saint is tied is pushed to the far right so that the line formed by the figure's outstretched arms, bound hands, and taut ropes cuts straight across the center of the canvas. This design thus accentuates the act of penitence, which Rosa highlighted with beautiful passages of glowing impasto on the armor, skin and gnarly rope, as well as by the dramatic sky that backlights the diagonal gesture. In the painting, the cross in the tree to which St. William prays is barely discernable in the shadows. In the print, however, the tree with its well-defined cross is moved to the center of the composition, to fill the spot occupied by the colorful sky in the painting. Unable to rely upon color, Rosa instead etched a magnificent passage of foliage that is as decorative as it is expressive. The popular etching inspired an eighteenth-century copy by Anton Joseph von Prenner (22.5 x 16.5 cm.) (plate 46, Theatricum Artis Pictoriae, 3 vols., Vienna, 1728-31).
Another autograph version of the present painting by Rosa is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Although seldom reproduced, that work which has slightly smaller dimensions (75 x 58.5 cm.) and is somewhat brighter in tonality than the present painting, was known to Leandro Ozzola in 1909 (Vita e opere di Salvator Rosa. Pittore, Poeta, Incisore, ill. fig. 7) and Luigi Salerno in 1963 (Salvator Rosa, p. 148) and 1975 (L'opera completa di Salvator Rosa, no. 171, ill.) who included it in their respective catalogues. There are at least two known (traceable) copies by other hands of the present painting, both oval in format. The better of the two is in the collection of the Duke of Richmond, Greenwood House, no. 211 (1 ft. 21 in. x 11 in.). The other is in Tatton Park, Cheshire. (Images of both are available in the Salvator Rosa microforms of the Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, no. 10,260.)
The present painting is an important addition to Rosa's oeuvre. It was unknown both to Ozzolo and Salerno since it had remained for some 140 years in the uncatalogued collections of the Earls of Caledon in Ireland, and then surfaced only briefly in 1939 at auction, only to disappear once again into a private collection for six decades.
The painting became part of the Caledon collections during the early years of the nineteenth century. The family fortune was made by the first Earl of Caledon, James Alexander (1730-1802). A self-made man, James Alexander was bent upon setting himself up as a member of the gentry. He purchased the estate of Caledon in County Tyrone, and then acquired in short order a barony, then a viscountcy, and finally an earldom and, in time-honored fashion, set himself up as a country gentleman. Because he died only two short years after attaining his earldom, it was left to his son, the second earl, to make the most substantial purchases of art and books to furnish the country home. Although the origins of the painting collection, including this work, were not faithfully recorded, it does appear from the second earl's collecting practices that he bought extravagantly, often, and en masse. For example, he purchased the entire library of Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore and commissioned the Regency architect John Nash to design a library for it. That library is probably the finest Nash room outside Buckingham Palace. Bishop Percy's collection was a peculiar choice since all the works were highly academic and heavily annotated. However, what Lord Caledon wanted was a library, any library. A gentleman's house required a library, and Bishop Percy's was convenient in both size and location. The convenience with which Lord Caledon purchased was more than matched by the convenience with which others sold.
When the 5th Earl of Caledon sold the family's collection of Old Master pictures in 1939, he parted with many notable examples of seventeenth-century painting from French, Italian, Spanish and Netherlandish Schools, which have since become part of the world's most distinguished museum collections. The Earl of Caledon's large Fall of Phaeton (circa 1604-5) by Peter Paul Rubens is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (1990.1.1), and Sebastien Bourdon's Baptism of Christ is now part of the permanent holdings of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1974.2).
Since it surfaced on the art market in 2005, Rosa's Penitent Saint William of Maleval has been professionally cleaned of its aged yellowed varnish and revarnished, uncovering the hitherto unknown signature on the reverse of the original liner support.
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