Salvator Rosa’s paintings are old style, the type of pictures that you imagine hanging in a musty museum, or in the hallway of a fading English country house. Ask a non art person to imagine an ‘Old Master’ and the pale colours, lack of visual clarity and the inexplicable narratives of some of Rosa’s weakest paintings might be a useful template. In fact, ask an art fan about a dull day at the gallery, and Rosa might well feature.
Yet Salvator Rosa remains appealing, particularly in England. It’s partly because the idea of Salvator Rosa fascinates, more so than his actual oeuvre. He is a painter with a strong literary bent, a noble outsider, a proto-Romantic with a love for dramatic countryside. These are the kind of the things that appeal to a certain English mentality.
Additionally, his biography reveals him fighting desperately to be an artist, and to be an artist in a sense that is familiar to contemporary eyes, i.e. someone who allies their creativity with their independence and integrity; someone who defines themselves as an individual, rather than simply turning out soulless work for philistine patrons.
The plots which fill his paintings reflect this well. The storylines themselves are full of invention dramatic gestures and emotions – the philosopher Empedocles, for example, throwing himself into a cavernous Etna
Yet in their execution they lose much of the drama that Rosa wanted to convey. The classical nature of seventeenth-century easel painting, with its demand for rational explanation of the actors in a scene, mitigates against Rosa’s sense of drama. Rosa’s personal instincts were much more Caravaggesque; but his style of painting was inherited from the much more classical school of seventeenth-century easel painting (as exemplified by the cool, rational oeuvre of Poussin). It’s this contradiction that so undermined what Rosa wanted to achieve.
The Death of Attilus Regius is certainly a dramatic conceit. The story concerns a Roman politician being placed in a barrel studded with spikes before being rolled down an obliging hill to his exceedingly painful death. A Carvaggesque treatment would have involved an intense focus on the central character, closing in on his stoic (or maybe not so stoic) acceptance of the pain about to be endured. But Rosa steps back and includes a host of other figures – horsemen, assistant workmen, ancillary spectators – and provides a calm, reflective skyscape, widening the panorama of the painting. The result it that there is too much distance between spectator and the painting’s central character. Any anguish or acceptance on the face of Attilus Regius is lost in a more generic, melancholy reflection.
But that’s not to say that Rosa’s paintings are not interesting. You just need to approach them from a different angle. He avoids so many of the cliches of seventeenth century Italian painting, the softened angels, the reductive piety and instead travels down entirely different avenues of the imagination.
The pressure to invent created some awfully strange paintings, almost surreal in the metaphorical complexity.
His enthusiasm for taking well-established genres (history painting and landscape) and then injecting them with his own imaginative distortions produce unlikely works of art.
The National Gallery’s Witches is a strange painting, a nocturnal landscape filled with disfigured outsiders, with little rich patches of colour shining out against the darkness. The painting is the flip side of Claude’s sun dappled perfections. With magic, death and disfigurement, Witches at their Incantations could be seen as a stab in the eye of religious orthodoxy. Yet I suspect it never induced really induced fear or indignation in the seventeenth century mind, but rather, just as it might today, curiosity and pity. The figures are certainly evocative, but the any evil intent is diminished. The monsters are exaggerated and fantastic, the saggy woman in the centre seems sad, the plotters on the left oblivious to any spectator, and the gaping beast seems to be rather pantomime in its expression. It’s an engaging and unusual painting, but the effect is one of humour rather than fear.
It’s perhaps in the portraits of individuals that Rosa approaches the grandeur the craved. They allow Rosa to focus on the sitter, and thus by removing the poetic details and environments that intrude in the other paintings, the sitters’ characters shine through. The Soldiers Playing Dice stands out, particularly the brooding figure, replete with glinting silver helmet, overseeing the game with philosophical intent; his noble contemplation rather at odds with his rather desolate surroundings. The allegorical portrait of Poetry also contains not seen elsewhere, her rather haughty, precise gaze possibly reflecting the difficulty Rosa had throughout his career, of attracting, maintaining and fulfilling his artistic muse.