Disability depicted: the Old Masters, Part 2


Some of the greatest Old Master artists, through the centuries, have portrayed disability. In three articles, Parts One, Two and Three, Charles Josefson explores twelve of these portrayals. In Part Two he considers the Spaniards Ribera and Velasquez, works from the collection at Ambras Castle, and Rembrandt.

In recent decades there has been a revolution in the artistic taste of the nation. Where once people were made anxious by the shock of the new, now we revel in the thrill of discovery: what will the artists think of next? Decades ago people were generally hostile to contemporary art, but now, with the arrival of the Saatchi Gallery, the success of the YBAs, and the ever-expanding Tate Modern, we seem not to be able to get enough.

Still, this thirst for the new does not need to mean we lose interest in our heritage. There is free admission to the Saatchi and the Tate Modern, but also to the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose visitor numbers have all also increased. And so, through extra effort by these venerable institutions to attract new people — their programmes of talks and lectures; their audio guides and increased social media presence — the Old Masters are giving as much pleasure as ever, though they might require more contextual explication than the moderns.

Our appreciation of contemporary art may even bring new ways of comprehending the old. Olafur Elliason’s 2003 installation at the Tate Modern, a giant, glowing sun in the shadowy Turbine Hall, approached the spiritual in its intensity. In a previous article, Part One, I wrote of the masterpiece altarpiece of Duccio. With the candlelight flickering in the crepuscular light of the medieval church the Duccio figures would have seemed to move: it was a profound atmospheric experience. Was the Duccio not a form of installation too?

In Part Two of my exploration of how disability has been depicted by Old Master artists, I consider works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including, in passing, a wonderful portrait by the brilliant female Old Master, Lavinia Fontana.

Paiinting of a young man holding a stick and smiling out from the canvas

Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), The Clubfoot (also known as The Club-Footed Boy) (1642), oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), The Clubfoot (also known as The Club-Footed Boy) (1642), oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris.

The great Spanish artist of the Baroque, Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), was a painter and printmaker, renowned for his dramatic realism and his depictions of religious and mythological subjects; though he also produced genre pictures and a handful of portraits. Also known as Lo Spagnoletto (Italian for The Little Painter), he was born at Játiva near Valencia, and, having worked for a period in Rome, settled in Naples in 1616, then under Spanish rule. Explaining his expatriate status he bemoaned: “[Spain is] a loving mother to foreigners and a cruel stepmother to her own sons”.

Ribera’s portrait of a disabled Neapolitan beggar, The Clubfoot, was created during the peak years of his career. Not only has the grinning, gap-toothed boy a deformed foot, he is perhaps also a man of restricted growth. The exact nature of the boy’s impairment has been the subject of some debate. Among other diagnoses, it has been suggested he suffers from hemiplegic cerebral palsy or else arthrogryposis.

In his right hand the boy holds a wide-brimmed hat and in the left he holds his cartellino, a small piece of paper, which reads, in Latin: “Give me alms for the love of god.” It has been suggested the note indicates mutism, though beggars in Naples required such a paper, or permit.

The boy, his clothing tattered, may be lowly in societal terms, but Ribera has painted him as if he were a nobleman or a saint: he has dignity, cheekiness, and has been made monumental. The perspective is low, so we look up to him. His crutch jauntily slung like a rifle over one shoulder, he poses like a proud prince hunting; he embodies swaggering, Baroque grandeur. This unlikely event of having his portrait painted is great fun.

The work is a synthesis of several sources. The subject sits well with the spirit of the Counter Reformation. There are the muted colours and the light and shadow chiaroscuro, so consistent with Caravaggio, yet Ribera’s effects are not so theatrically sharp: the beggar does not stand in darkness, but in a more naturalistic light, beneath bright skies.

Also, the picture reflects the artist’s admiration for the richer, more luminous effects of the Venetian and Bolognese Schools: Titian, Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni. As well, commissioned from a Flemish Art dealer, the work reflects the Flemish adoration for “low-life” genre scenes, a taste spurred by the genius of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (see part one).

A departure from the Flemish or Dutch who often painted beggars or the disabled as buffoons, the Bolognese Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) had depicted peasants and the disabled with humanity (see previous article). Likewise, the shining triumvirate of the Spanish Golden Age, Ribera, Murillo and Velázquez, never did mock or sneer, but gave the common man, even though he be a disabled beggar, his dignity. In this period a great many charitable institutions were founded to help the poor. A shift in the European consciousness has been wrought. Life remained nasty, brutish and short, but all its forms could now be cherished.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Portrait of Sebastián de Morra (c. 1645), oil on canvas, The Prado Museum.

Painting of a bearded man sitting down

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Portrait of Sebastián de Morra (c. 1645), oil on canvas, The Prado Museum, Madrid. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Born in 1599 in Seville, Diego Velázquez was apprenticed to the most significant local artist Francisco Pacheco, whose daughter, Juana, he married in 1621. Benefiting from the courtly connections of his father-in-law, Velázquez was commissioned to portray the young King Phillip IV. So impressed was the king with his portrait, he henceforth would not allow another artist to paint him.

Not only was Velázquez successful as a painter, he continued to rise as a courier in the royal household: trusted to be Assistant to the Wardrobe in 1636; Gentleman of the Bedchamber in 1643; and put in charge of the Alcazar Palace renovation in 1647. He continued to fulfill administrative roles, so that his painting became something of a sideline.

Receiving the honour he had always sought, Velázquez was made a Knight of Santiago in 1658. In his most famous masterpiece, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), he portrayed himself at work, later adding his knightly badge of office. In this, one of art’s greatest treasures, he also depicts disability, since it includes portraits of two people of restricted growth, Maria Barbola and Nicholas Pertusato, with his foot on the mastiff.

Phillip IV of Spain was very attached to people with restricted growth; there were more than 110 in his retinue. With admirable sensitivity, Velázquez painted at least 10 portraits of these indiviudals, most of which are held by the Prado Museum, Madrid.

Of all physical impairments, dwarfism – people with restricted growth being customary accoutrements of royal courts – has a prominent place in the History of Art. Portrayed in painted limestone, the man of short stature Seneb was Keeper of the Pharaoh’s wardrobe. At the Camera degli Sposi at Mantua, the Gonzaga show off their attendant and, into modern times, Cezanne portrayed his friend, the artist Achille Emperaire – both men being of restricted growth. .

Velázquez’s portrait of Don Sebastián de Morra is perhaps the most powerful and penetrating such portrayal. His grandiloquent name is mockery. He would likely have been scorned by courtiers, teased and pranked. He sits humbly upon the bare earth floor with his back to a wall. His short legs and foreshortened feet extend out toward the viewer. But we do not look down at this jester-attendant, but eye-to-eye, as an equal, as he is shown from a low vantage point. He wears a rich smock of rose-coloured velvet topped with a white lace collar. His fists are tightly clenched into balls, gripping his belt. He is primed for confrontation. This is not a man to be trifled with. His inscrutable, gazing dark eyes blaze with intelligence. He defies condescension.

The portrait is naturalistic, yet, close-to, the loose, bravura brushwork is almost abstract. While the brushwork recalls Titian, the quintessentially Baroque contrast of light and dark, was learnt from Caravaggio. We do not know Velázquez’s personal views, but looking at this picture one cannot but think he empathises with his sitter — another Habsburg plaything. Ultimately we, the viewer, are just another shameless voyeur this man must endure.

Portrait of a Sixteenth Century Disabled Man, oil on canvas, Chamber of Art and Curiosities, Ambras Castle

Paiinting of a disabled man lying down

Portrait of a Sixteenth Century Disabled Man, oil on canvas, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the more remarkable depictions of disability, one of the most remarkable portraits in all art, must be the Portrait of a Sixteenth Century Disabled Man held at the Chamber of Art and Curiosities at Ambras Castle, Innsbruck, created by Ferdinand II of Tyrol, Archduke of Austria.

The collection, a ‘wunderkammer’, is notable for a number of reasons. It was formed by one of history’s most important collectors of art, and housed in a purpose-built museum: the oldest museum in the world. Today it is the only renaissance kunstkammer preserved in its original location. It has famous collections of armour and glassware. Among other masterpieces, it contains paintings by Hans Burgkmair, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Peter Paul Rubens, and Diego Velázquez.

The disabled man of the portrait looks directly at the viewer. He lies naked, but for his ruff and hat, prone on a dark green sheet, his legs withered. During the sixteenth century couriers gasped at what they saw. Adding the drama of a reveal, the disabled body of the sitter was obscured by a sheet of red paper, which would be lifted by the viewer. It has been suggested the man was a jester at court. But whether he told any good jokes, or whether he was purely a curiosity or seen as a ‘freak’, we cannot know.

Portrait of Gregor Baci with a lance running through his right eye and through to the back of his head

By Anonymous (Kunsthistorisches Museum khm.at) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ambras collection contains other portraits of disability. Not one for the squeamish, there is an extraordinary portrait of Gregor Baci, an Hungarian courtier who fought a duel and had one eye pieced by a lance. His other eye degenerated, becoming bloodied and deformed. Incredibly, Baci managed to survive this condition for one year, long enough for his portrait to be produced; showing the lance protruding from both sides of his head.

As well as portraits of court paintings of people with restricted growth and gigantism, the collection holds portraits of Pedro Gonzalez, ‘The Wolfman of Munich’, taken from his Canary Islands’ home as an infant, to be presented to King Henri II in Paris.

The hirsute boy, Pedro, received a formal education, out of curiosity rather than concern, because the king wanted to test his belief he was an ineducable savage. The king was mistaken: Pedro took to wearing splendid robes, became fairly fluent in the language of the elite, Latin, and was able to master the art of noble gestures, etiquette and tact.

Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614), Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez. Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (1595), oil on panel, Musée du Château, Blois.

In 1573, aged seventeen, Pedro married a young French lady and fathered seven children, five of whom inherited his furry condition, now known as hypertrichosis universalis. The family were a sensation at courts across Europe, acting as curiosity ambassadors for Henri II.

Several portrait paintings were kept in the Cabinet of Curiosities at Innsbruck. The portrait of Antonietta Gonzales was painted by Lavinia Fontana, who, raised in the workshop of her father Prospero Fontana (c. 1512–97), learnt to paint in the Mannerist style and would become one of the most important portraitists in Bologna during the late sixteenth century.

Around eight years old, stood with self-possessed, noble deportment, Antonietta Gonzales is depicted wearing a luxurious, flowing dress, with a large jewelled cross. Yet she is shown in a cave, since many Europeans apparently believed the Canary Islanders were cavemen.

The Gonzalez family story has a happy ending. Antonietta’s elder brother was employed at the castle of a cardinal in the northern Italian town of Capodimonte, and became a powerful trader. Ending their travels his family settled with him, where they produced children and lived peaceably.

It is an irony that the Gonzales family were gawped at and called freaks, when, due to inbreeding, the greedy hoarding of the family wealth, their Habsburg masters were became increasingly deformed: with their famous protruding jaws, blank faces, and the impotence, which caused their extinction.

Anonymous artist, Portrait of Gregor Baci, sixteenth century, oil on canvas. Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614), Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (1595), oil on panel, Musée du Château, Blois, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), The Blindness of Tobit (1651), Etching with touches of drypoint, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), The Blindness of Tobit. (1651), Etching with touches of drypoint, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Book of Tobit, sounding as if formed in the imagination of Tolkien, is an apocryphal scripture from the Old Testament of Catholic Bibles. As with other books of Apocrypha, it tends not to be included in Protestant Bibles. The story is an eccentric one, a romance, with spirituality, and sometimes humour.

The story begins in Nineveh where Tobit lives, in the period after the Assyrians carried Israel’s Northern Kingdom into captivity. The righteous Tobit goes blind; farcically his blinding is caused by fallen bird droppings. The old man expects to die. Thus he sends his son on a journey to recover money deposited with a relative; money the boy will need for burying his father, caring for his mother, and generous almsgiving. On this journey a man offers to accompany Tobias. This man later reveals himself to be the Archangel Raphael. Together Tobias and Raphael recover the money, and free Sara from the demon Asmodeus. Raphael provides a cure for Tobit’s blindness. Tobit and Sarah marry. Everyone enjoys a happy ending, except for the tormenting demon.

In the National Gallery, London, there is an altar painting, Tobias and the Angel, attributed to the workshop of the Italian Renaissance painter Verrocchio. Leonardo was an apprentice in the studio, and it has been suggested he painted some of the details of this work: perhaps the fluffy dog or fish. The story tells it was the heart, liver and gall of the fish which Raphael instructed Tobias to extract: these being the ingredients needed for the remedy to cure his father’s blindness. In mercantile Florence Raphael was venerated as a protector of travellers and as a healer.

Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, Tobias and the Angel ( c. 1470-5), tempera on wood.

Also held by the National Gallery, London, but not currently on display, is the Rembrandt painting Anna and the Blind Tobit. Tobit and Anna are shown quietly waiting at home for the return of their son. During the seventeenth century the couple were seen in the Netherlands as worthy examples of piety in adversity.

However, I have not chosen the painting, but an etching by Rembrandt, The Blindness of Tobit, as one of my favourite Old Master depictions of disability. Demonstrating why he deserves the title greatest etcher, it has drama, humanity, and humour. It captures the disordered moment when Tobit hears the knock on the door and realises his son has at long last returned home.

Rembrandt, Anna and the Blind Tobit (c. 1630), oil on oak

In his eagerness to greet his boy, the old, blind man knocks over a spinning wheel, and is about to trip over the dog as he rushes into the doorpost. The fish hanging from the hearth, as well as giving a flavour of his impoverished life, must allude to the cure of Tobit.

The art historian Kenneth Clark surmised that this composition by Rembrandt, albeit only subconsciously, was influenced by Raphael’s Blind Elymas (see Raphael’s tapestry cartoons, V & A museum). Clark wrote: “Out of all the conceivable ways of depicting blindness, are not the similarities of rhythm and pose almost too great for coincidence? And is not the unforgettable simplicity of Rembrandt’s Tobit — the quintessence of blindness — an indication of some deep secreted experience rather than mere observation?” I too find the Rembrandt etching unforgettable.