Salvator Rosa

I recently have been visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts on my lunch break. I am within walking distance and it is summer. I realized I should take advantage of the nice walk by the beautiful Beaux Arts building and the very refreshing water fountains out front, say “hi” to the old Thinker and take in more art. Of course, the place is huge and I can only see a fraction in the 45 minutes or so that I have mid-day. Bit by bit I am planning to make my way through. Recently, I decided to take the “Tour of Italy” to see what they had.

There was one painting, or rather the accompanying description, which captured my attention. It was dark. A man looking over his right shoulder, hair rather unkempt, his gaze slightly away from the viewer. He was standing in shadows, just enough light on his face to see his features. It was a self portrait of the artist Salvator Rosa. The placard said he had “a serious interest in witchcraft,” which naturally piqued my interest.

Turns out he was something of a rebel and perhaps eccentric for the time. He was quite independent and tried making a living with his art, which also included acting, music, and printmaking, without being tied to a rich patron. He was also a satirist. His other paintings for the most part match the mood and darkness of his self-portrait. There are lots of landscapes, where the natural features – rocks and mountains and trees – dwarf the humans depicted. He would paint a bible story here and there but usually the more obscure ones, some of them featuring witches.

I found this all intriguing and as I learned more found myself feeling admiration and kinship with Rosa. However, the last decade or so has made me weary of the “bad boy” – how toxic was this persona? Hard to tell nearly 400 years later, but Wikipedia described him and his wife Lucrezia as “dedicated and lifelong companions” which is reassuring. They didn’t marry until 1673, shortly before he died, and I’m not sure why since they had several children together.

The Shade of Samuel Appears to Saul (featuring the Witch of Endor), 1668

In the witchcraft-related paintings, the witches are often among giant grotesque creatures, giant birds or bird skeletons. The witches themselves are not friendly looking either. These images are dramatic and terrifying, especially if you view them as potentially realistic. Rosa did not seem to romanticize witchcraft at all, but I wonder about the nature of his interest. Was he afraid of witches? Was he painting his nightmares? Did he think stories about witches were over blown and he was making fun at how ridiculous some claims were? I usually have more questions than answers.

I have requested a book on him from the library – hopefully his story is as good as I imagine it will be.

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