Salvator Rosa was an Italian Baroque painter, poet, and printmaker who worked in Naples, Rome, and Florence. In relation to his paintings, he was described as “unorthodox and extravagant”, and a “perpetual rebel”.
Rosa, has also been described as “one of the most original artists and and extravagant personalities of the 17th century.” (Source)
This particular painting is currently housed in the The Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge.
This was a deeply personal project filled with anguish. In 1655, a terrible plague swept across Naples. Salvator Rosa’s son (Rosalvao), his brother, sister, along with her husband and all five of their children died. The fragility of life and inevitability of death were popular themes in the art of the day, but this painting was very personal and produced from raw wounds of that recent tragedy. Salvator Rosa in a letter, expressed his pain thus;
“This time heaven has struck me in such a way that shows me that all human remedies are useless and the least pain I feel is when I tell you that I weep as I write.”
Despite its universal, eternal theme – the frailty of human life – this is an intensely personal painting. The tired-looking, strangely passive seated woman is a portrait of Lucrezia, Salvator’s mistress and the mother of Rosalvo. The child, his wrist clasped by Death, represents the artist’s dead son. The ring of pale roses around the mother’s head is probably an allusion to the family name. Salvator’s own initials appear at the very bottom of the canvas, on the blade of the knife, a death symbol, the ruthless steel that has severed his family from him. – source
Death personified and in the form of an overpowering skeleton, directs the infants hands to write the following passage;
Conceptio Culpa, Nasci Pena, Labor Vita, Necesse Mori;
Conception is a sin, Birth is pain, Life is toil, Death a necessity’