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Kimbell Art Museum Presents Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness, and Magic

The Kimbell Art Museum presents the first major U.S. exhibition devoted to the work of Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), one of the boldest artists and personalities of 17th-century Italy, open through March 27, 2011. Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness, and Magic surveys Rosa’s career with 36 of his best paintings, on loan from museums and private collections in Europe and North America.

Salvator Rosa (1615 – 1673), Lucrezia as Poetry, c. 1641. Hartford (CT), Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Oil on canvas. 45 3/4 x 37 1/4in The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund. 1956.159b © 2009. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/ Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence

The history of art has known many rebels, but none quite like Salvator Rosa. Fiercely independent and powerfully inventive, he created some of the most evocative paintings of his age—landscapes, portraits, scenes of witchcraft and magic, altarpieces, and subjects derived from classical literature. He is most widely known for his landscapes, with their craggy ravines, crumbling towers, and suggestive light effects. But there is much more to Rosa, as will be revealed in the Kimbell’s exhibition, with works covering all his favorite genres.

“Salvator Rosa lived his life on the edge and painted in the same manner. Visitors will be entranced by his dramatic paintings and colorful life story,” commented Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “The Museum is particularly delighted to share this exhibition with the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which was founded in 1811 and, like the Kimbell, boasts a superb old master collection and one of the most important and influential museum buildings of its century.”

The works in the exhibition are grouped by theme, beginning with self-portraits and fanciful heads. One of the anchors of this first section is Self-Portrait with a Skull (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which the long-haired Rosa, a tear coming from his eye, meditates on death. Landscapes come next, and among the star attractions is a large coastal scene from the Prado, Madrid, which Rosa painted for King Philip IV of Spain; it is being specially cleaned for the exhibition and represents a recent addition to Rosa’s oeuvre. Rosa’s abilities as a landscapist were also central to his paintings about magic and the natural sciences, which fill the middle of the exhibition. These are some of his most spellbinding works and include Jason and the Dragon (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). The exhibition concludes in stunning fashion with a selection of his large figure paintings. Most are little known; all are intense and eccentric.

“If Rosa is not very well known to today’s art lovers, he was one of the most significant presences on the 17th-century Italian art scene,” remarked C. D. Dickerson, curator of European art at the Kimbell. “He vied with all the great painters of the time—including Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Guercino—and was admired by all the best collectors, even if his combative personality did not always make him their friend. This exhibition will shine the kind of focused light on Rosa’s art that it has not received in modern times. Rosa emerges as inventive, talented, and totally unique.”

The path that Rosa’s career took was winding—not only in geography but also in its pattern of successes and failures. He was born in Naples, where he won a certain amount of fame with his landscapes, battle paintings, and coastal scenes. These are lively and atmospheric affairs, and the praise they earned him encouraged Rosa to try his luck in Rome, where he moved during the late 1630s. In virtually no time, he had played his cards right, landing commissions from local princes and cardinals and faraway dukes and kings. He also made enemies, however, and decided that he should flee to Florence, where he came under the protection of a member of the Medici family.

The next nine years were exciting and hugely productive ones for Rosa. He found many sympathetic minds and was able to gather around him brilliant writers and scholars. Pure landscape became less and less interesting for him, and he increasingly turned his attention to classical themes and allegorical portraits, such as the alluring Poetry (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford). This is also when he painted his first pictures of witches, including the mysterious Scene of Witchcraft now in the National Gallery, London. Again, it would seem that life was good for Rosa—but he detested being bound to the Medici. He preferred to think of himself as a free man who could paint when and what he wanted. He bolted to Rome, where he eventually regained his professional footing, only to risk it with one bitter controversy after another. Still, he pushed forward with his art. There were stirring landscapes, mesmerizing scenes of classical inspiration, large and captivating religious paintings, and a particularly stinging pictorial satire—the Fortuna, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles––that caused Rosa real problems with the papacy. His admirers never stopped growing in number, however, and as death approached, he could take comfort in an artistic reputation matched by only a handful of painters in the city. Visitors to the exhibition will see why.

Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness, and Magic is organized by the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support is provided by American Airlines, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and NBC 5. The accompanying catalogue, by Helen Langdon, Caterina Volpi, and Xavier F. Salomon, is lavishly illustrated and emphasizes the variety and quality of Rosa’s art and ideas. It is published by Paul Holbertson Publishing, London, in association with the Dulwich and the Kimbell. It is available in the Museum Shop for $45.

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