The apocryphal Book of Tobit describes how Tobit, a blind old man, sent his son Tobias to the distant city of Media to collect a debt. The boy was accompanied by the Archangel Raphael, protector of travellers. In this painting, Tobias struggles with a fish that had tried to devour him, as Raphael informs him that its heart, liver and gall bladder could be used for medicine (these organs would later restore Tobit’s sight).
Salvator Rosa liked to build up dark, heavy forms in the foreground of his paintings; here, a cliff face rises up on the right, its lower half in a deep shadow that is interrupted by the gleam of a gushing waterfall. The figures are small within this dramatic landscape: Tobias, holding the fish, struggles against the current, watched by Raphael and a little dog. Above, a flight of birds leads our gaze from the rocky gorge to the open, mountainous landscape and menacing clouds beyond.
The apocryphal Book of Tobit describes how Tobit, a blind old man, sent his son Tobias to the distant city of Media to collect a debt. The boy was accompanied by the Archangel Raphael, protector of travellers. This painting depicts an important moment in Tobias’s journey (Tobit 6: 2–9). While the boy was washing on the banks of the River Tigris, a fish tried to devour him. The angel told Tobias to grab it and remove its heart, liver and gall bladder, as they could be used for medicine (they would later restore Tobit’s sight). Tobias, holding the weighty fish, struggles against the current, his red robe billowing behind him. He is watched by the angel and a little dog at the water’s edge.
The figures are small and insubstantial compared to the grandeur of the landscape around them. Rosa liked to build up dark, heavy forms in the foreground of his paintings; here, a cliff face rises up on the right, its lower half in a deep shadow that is interrupted by the gleam of a small waterfall. Together with the windswept trees on the left, the outcrop creates a stage for the figures, though they are almost unnoticeable in the wilderness. Above, a flight of birds leads our gaze across the rocky gorge and towards open, mountainous landscape. There is no reassuring glimpse of any distant buildings and the clouds loom menacingly overhead.
Paintings like this one won Rosa a reputation among his patrons in Rome for outstanding landscapes that formed the backdrop to scenes of classical myth and to biblical events. His untamed landscapes are quite different from the gentle, atmospheric scenery of his contemporary, Claude. He didn't create a sense of the harmony of nature, as Claude did, but rather explored how violent and unpredictable its forces can be. This scene does, however, have echoes of Dughet’s stormy landscapes, such as Landscape with Elijah and the Angel, which was painted in about 1663.
Landscape with Tobias and the Angel is probably a late work, painted during the early 1660s, around the same time as Landscape with Mercury and the Dishonest Woodman. Both compositions have two figures, one on land, the other in a river, placed in a setting that shows the restless movement of the wind, water and clouds. This scene, however, is freer and more spontaneous in style. Its subject must have appealed to Rosa, as he painted it many times; the National Gallery owns another version, probably the work of his studio. It was a well-known story in Italy in the seventeenth century, and there is also a version by Domenichino in the Gallery’s collection: Landscape with Tobias laying hold of the Fish.
Landscape with Tobias and the Angel was in the collection of the nineteenth-century English Romantic painter, John Martin, who would have appreciated the breadth and remoteness of its setting – features that he included in many of his own dramatic landscapes.
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