Return to the Grim and Dark

Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes professor of English at SMU, writes about the Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) exhibit at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth.


In art, reputations rise and fall, and today's canon can become tomorrow's cannon fodder. Today we venerate Caravaggio as the master of chiaroscuro (effects of light and shade), of saints with dirty feet, of dramatic religious encounters, as the painter of figures of epicene sexuality. Two hundred and fifty years ago, especially in Britain, he was unrecognized. Instead, throughout much of the Romantic Age, Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) was the name on every collector's lips. The tables have since turned.

Which is why the Kimbell Museum's "Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness & Magic," the first major American exhibit of Rosa's paintings, deserves a visit. It is not an easy show to see, even though it displays a mere 36 pictures.

Whatever he was like in real life (apparently he was a combative, rebellious prototype of the bohemian artist), Rosa is not a painter you fall in love with. The first things you notice are what he does not have. There is little playfulness or joie de vivre. He was a contemporary, and knew the work, of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, but he lacks the gentle softness of the former and the impeccable coloring of the latter, although his mythological scenes often replicate Poussin's neoclassical geometry. His unsettling landscapes move beyond Claude's pastoral harmonies, replacing them with dangerous, wind-swept, "sublime" ravines and crags, gloom and doom. The Kimbell's silvery light allows us to see the somberness up close. The pictures here are, by and large, dark: They have little bright color. Some come close to Goya's horrifying late black paintings. Shades of brown and other earth tones predominate even in the landscapes. The sun seldom shines. Rosa brings the underworld up to the surface. He is both classical and (pre-) Romantic.

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