The Death of Lucretia1871. Oil on canvas, 257 x 347 cm.
After revolutionizing the painting of his time with Queen Isabel la Católica dictating her Last Will and Testament (P4624), Rosales again shook the very foundations of the Spanish art world when he presented the present historical canvas at the 1871 Exposición Nacional. This is the work that he always considered his masterpiece, and it earned him a first medal. It was always very polemical, however, and the fierce criticism it received for its disconcerting modernity embittered the final years of the artist’s life. Here, Rosales decided to again address one of the most exemplary episodes from Ancient Rome, returning to a subject widely exploited by academic classicism during the early decades of the 19th century. The present work marked the beginning of a second golden age for Spanish history painting, now with a fully modern approach to both its pictorial language and the dramatic nature of its subjects.
Here, as in his previous groundbreaking work, the chosen episode was the agony of a virtuous woman whose death would also have lasting political consequences. The suicide of Roman patrician Lucrece after she was raped by the son of the king of Rome led to the fall of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Roman Republic in the year 510 B.C.E. Thus, Lucrece was widely known in the Neoclassical era as the maximum example of virtue and marital fidelity.
In her chambers, the violated Roman lies dying, held by her father and her husband while Brutus vows vengeance with raised dagger. A blue-robed patrician, probably Valerius, buries his face in his arms, horrified at the sight of her tragic end. Unlike the eminently political and spectacular interpretation that other Spanish artist brought to this story shortly after this work, Rosales’s scene is set in the intimacy of the married couple’s bedroom, thus emphasizing the eminently human character of a tragedy whose private nature grew precisely because its public repercussions changed the course of history and transformed the political system of the ancient world’s most powerful empire.
The truly revolutionary effect that this painting by Rosales had in its time lies fundamentally in its disconcertingly modern technique, a masterful display of absolute freedom in which the artist carries the realist use of paint to its ultimate consequences with an extremely broad and direct technique based on vigorous brushstrokes (Text drawn from Díez, J. L.: El Siglo XIX en el Prado, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2007, pp. 218-224).