Francesco Hayez and his women.

Self portrait with freinds by Francesco Hayez (c.1827)
Self portrait with freinds by Francesco Hayez (c.1827)

In the work above,  Francesco Hayez has depicted himself surrounded by friends.  On the left is the artists Pelagio Palagi, at the top, the artist Giovanni Migliara, and on the right, the painter Giuseppe Molteni, wearing a top hat, along with the writer and poet Tommaso Grossi, the only one with a bare head.  In the foreground and at the centre of the scene, is Hayez.  For some reason he has depicted himself as a somewhat unassuming person and yet there is an air of self-satisfaction about his facial expression.  On his head is an artist’s peaked beret and he wears a pair of round glasses.  This is the only portrait of him wearing spectacles.  It is clear to see the background of the painting lies unfinished and yet it blends in with the material of the clothes the men are wearing and in a way it bonds together the group of friends.  The unfinished background blends and merges with the material of their garments and unites the group of friends, and thus it presents the group of men with a feeling of intellectual brotherhood. Maybe the subject of the painting is not just portraits of a group of friends but more a symbol of friendship and belonging between them.

 So why have I chosen to feature works by Francesco Hayez?   Over the past few years of writing this blog I have featured paintings of many ladies.  Some were pretty, some were plain, and laying myself open to be called un-gentlemanly, some were frankly, ugly!  However, in a few cases I have fallen in love with the depicted beauty of a lady.   A week ago I found myself falling for the haunting depiction of another woman!   Before I identify my new love, I have to admit that I am not a lover of Modern Art and Modern Art Galleries tend to be well down my list of places to visit.   Of course I am always willing to be converted or as was the case last week, during my stay in Verona, I was willing to be seduced to visit the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Achille Forti by their advertising posters, which were dotted around the city.   On these large posters was the painting of a beautiful young woman.  It was a haunting depiction and I knew I had to see the original.  The work was entitled Meditazione (Meditation), and was completed by the nineteenth century Italian artist Francesco Hayez in 1851.  The works of Hayez are not new to my blog as I have featured paintings by him on two other occasions, viz., his very famous The Kiss (My Daily Art Display Jan 6th 2011) and the Old Testament painting,  Susanna at her Bath (My Daily Art Display Mar 27th 2012).

Meditation by Francesco Hayez (1851)
Meditation by Francesco Hayez (1851)

The painting, Meditazione, is housed in the Verona gallery is stunning.  The sensuousness of the model is breathtaking.  Is this just simply an erotic painting with little meaning?  Of course it isn’t.  To understand the depiction one needs to understand the history of the time and Hayez himself.   The year 1848, three years before Hayez painted this work, was a year seething with revolutions in Europe.  They began in France in the February of that year and soon spread throughout Europe.  In total more than fifty countries were affected by uprisings.  The reasons behind the revolutions were varied; dissatisfaction with the political leaders, people demanded a more democratic rule with more say on how the country should be run.  The poor were fed up with their lot in life.  In Italy it was also the desire for Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, and for the Milanese in particular, it was about freeing themselves from Austrian rule.

Milan, where Hayer was living, was a hotbed of unrest and it was there that the Cinque Giorante insurrections took place between March 18th and March 22nd 1848.  News of the revolution in Vienna and the dismissal of the Austrian chancellor, Metternich had reached Milan on March 17th and this created much political exhilaration and fresh hopes for the future. A group of young republicans decided to coordinate a large demonstration calling for freedom of the press, the setting up of a civilian guard and the setting up of a new national assembly. On March 18th a crowd of ten thousand people assembled, some of them armed, in front of the town hall and quickly invaded the government palace, killing a guard and forcing the Vice-governor O’Donell to accept their political demands, most importantly, the formation of a civilian guard. The Austrian military leader, Marshal Radetzky, ordered his troops to recapture the government buildings, and an intense combat ensued. The insurrection spread spontaneously throughout Milan; the Milanese people erected hundreds of barricades in the narrow streets of Milan using carriages, pianos, and sofas, thus rendering the movement of the Austrian troops difficult. The combat was split into many isolated battles which was advantageous to the Milanese who were able to capture arms and ammunition from the enemy. While almost the entire Milanese society supported the revolt, the lower classes, artisans and workers, played the most significant role in the combat, but over four hundred of them lost their lives during those five bloody days.  The First War of Italian Independence against Austria failed and it would take two further wars and another twenty-two years before Risorgimento was achieved.  Hayez, who personally experienced the insurrections and was a great supporter of Italian unification, was disappointed when the First War of Independence came to nought and this probably was reflected in this painting.

The demeanour of the female in the painting is one of meditation.  Thinking what could have been if the initial fight for independence had succeeded and downhearted about its failure.  These were probably the thoughts of Hayez himself, who was fiercely patriotic.  She sits on a leather-backed chair her head slightly lowered but she has a penetrating stare.  The white dress has slipped from her right shoulder exposing her breast.   She symbolizes the disappointment following the five day uprising and the war.  On her lap is a book, the title of which we see on its spine, is The History of Italy.   The title alone enshrines the hopes of the young people who had fought and in many cases died in the name of freedom and independence.  In her left hand she holds a black wooden cross, symbolizing the martyrdom of the Milanese citizens who died opposing the Austrian troops.  On the cross are carved the dates of the Cinque Giornate.

La Meditazione  by Francesco Hayez (1851)
La Meditazione by Francesco Hayez (1851)

Hayez painted a number of versions of La Meditazione and the one above was completed by him in 1851 and it again depicts the dark-haired and pale-skinned young woman in plain dress. Her melancholic attitude is explicitly connected to the failed hopes of 1848 and the Cinque Giornati in Milan. This work of art was originally entitled  Italia nel 1848 (Italy in 1848)

Melancholic Thoughts by Francesco Hayez (1842)
Melancholic Thoughts by Francesco Hayez (1842)

In 1842, he had completed a work entitled Melancholic Thoughts.  Again it depicts a woman lost in thought and again we can tell by her facial expression that all is not well with her.  Hayez is once again transferring to the woman his own melancholia with regards the failure of Italian unification.  She is clearly expressing his pessimism.

Carolina Zucchi (La Malata) by Francesco Hayez (1825)
Carolina Zucchi (La Malata) by Francesco Hayez (1825)

One of Hayez favoured models was his girlfriend Carolina Zucchi.  She posed for many of his famous works and in 1825, Hayez painted her portrait, Portrait of Carolina Zucchi, often termed la Malata or Sick Woman.  Carolina Zucchi came from an educated middle class Milanese family and her father, a prosperous accountant, was part of a circle of intellectuals who would gather in the living rooms of various houses including the one at her family home.  Hayez was often invited to attend these soirées and was introduced to many of the popular artists and musicians of the time, such as Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini who were regular visitors.  Hayez’s depiction of Carolina is as a person who is unwell and has retired to her bed.  It is a small (60cms x 50cms) intimate depiction of her posing on her bed in a simple white cotton nightdress with collar and cuffs decorated with a round of flounces.  It is undone at the neck.  Her dark hair is gathered at the back of her head with just a few curls hanging down over her ears almost touching her shoulders.  The darkness of her hair is in stark contrast to the whiteness of her nightdress and the bedding.  Although this work was given the title of la Malata, the sick person, this is more than just a depiction of a woman laid low with an illness, it is an intimate painting in which Hayez pays homage to the beauty of Carolina.

Clara Mafei by Francesco Hayez (1825)
Clara Mafei by Francesco Hayez (1825)

Hayez completed a number of history paintings some of which featured the Crusades and was a master of portraiture especially those of aristocratic ladies.  One such lady was Clara Carrara Maffei.  She was the daughter of Count Giovanni Battista Spinelli Carrara Clusone, a writer, dramatist and poet.  At the age of seventeen she married a young poet, Andrea Maffei.  Clara often held salons at their home and it became known as the Salotto Maffei, with Giuseppe Verdi being a regular caller.  Clara and her husband would invite to these soirées the most popular composers, artists and writers of the time, such as Honoré de Balzac and Franz Liszt and one of the painters invited was Francesco Hayez.   Clara, like Hayez, was pro-Risorgimento and these evenings were often populated by such like-minded people.  Hayez was commissioned by Andrea to complete the portrait of his beloved wife Clara and this he completed in 1825.

Matilde Juva Branca by Francesco Hayez (1851)
Matilde Juva Branca by Francesco Hayez (1851)

Another portrait he painted was of Matilde Juva Branca, a famous singer.  Her husband Giovanni Juva had commissioned the work in 1851 as a pendant of his own portrait which had been painted in the same year by one of Francesco Hayez’s students, Mauro Conconi.  Hayez chose a neutral background from which Matilde’s dark silhouette emerges.  She is depicted in three-quarter pose.  Her demeanour is one of sober elegance and her face and white blouse stand out against the darker background.  There is a touch of haughtiness about her facial expression.  Matilde and her husband Giovanni often held soirées at their residence, at which artists, like Hayez and the literati would attend.  Giuseppe Verdi, the composer and Alessandro Manzoni, the poet and novelist were frequent visitors to their salons.

Odalisque with book by Francesco Hayez (1866)
Odalisque with book by Francesco Hayez (1866)

Hayez had a penchant for painting semi-clothed females often with Oriental themes such as his series of odalisque paintings.   Odalisque paintings were popular with many artists, such as Ingres and François Boucher.    The word derives from the Turkish word odalik which translated means chambermaid but in fact an odalisque was a female slave in a Turkish harem.  She was ranked below a concubine of the harem.  In fact, she was the lowest of the low in the social order of a harem, but in time she could become a concubine herself. So low was her status that an odalık was rarely seen by the sultan but instead was under the direct management of the sultan’s mother.  Depicting semi naked women by artists was frowned upon unless they could incorporate a historical or mythological connotation to the works of art and so the depiction of these women in a realistic harem setting seemed to make them acceptable!

Francesco Hayez was a wonderful artist who, amongst other things, took great pleasure in depicting female beauty in his works of art.

Amedeo Modigliani. Part 4 – His lovers and the tragic end.

Modigliani - the woman's
Modigliani – the woman’s man

Today’s blog is the final one of four about the life of Amedeo Modigliani, the Livorno-born artist, who at the age of twenty-two moved to Paris where he lived out the last fourteen years of his life.  As an artist he employed a number of models for his works of art and like many artists of the time the relationship between artist and model became much more than just a working relationship.   Mothers were horrified if their daughters agreed to model for the artists, as an artist’s model was looked upon as just being one step from being his lover and thus the artist model was accused of almost prostituting herself in the name of art.  It is almost certain that Modigliani had very close and intimate relationships with his models as he believed, in the case of his female nude portrayals, to achieve a great painting he had first to make love to the model !  I wonder if that is how he sold that argument to the model !!!  However one must remember that Modigliani for all his faults and transgressions was an extremely handsome man.  Although the models, who sat for his nude collection, are unknown we do know that he had intimate and serious relationships with three named women and it is those ladies, who featured in many of his works of art that I would like to highlight in today’s blog. 

Anna Akhmatova.by Modigliani (c. 1911)
Anna Akhmatova by Modigliani (c. 1911)

In 1910, whilst living in Paris, Modigliani met Anna Akmahtova.  Anna was born Anna Gorenko, in Odessa in 1889, and was five years younger than Modigliani.  She came from a well-to-do family and from an early age was fascinated by poetry.  Her love of poetry was denounced by her parents as being foolish, self-indulgent and something which would they feared would have a corrupt influence on their daughter.  However she persisted and started writing poetry when she was just eleven years of age and had her first works published when she was seventeen. She would become one of Russia’s greatest twentieth century poets.   

Anna Akhmatova as ‘Acrobat’ by Modigliani
Anna Akhmatova as ‘Acrobat’ by Modigliani

The one person who constantly encouraged Anna to write her poetry was the young Russian poet, Nikolay Gumilev.  However, to placate her parents all her writings were published under her pseudonym, Akhmatova, which was the surname of her maternal grandmother.  After a prolonged “chase” Nikolay finally persuaded Anna to marry him but in a letter to her friend she outlined how she was unsure that she had made the right decision.  She wrote about her feelings for her future husband:

“…He has loved me for three years now, and I believe that it is my fate to be his wife. Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do…” 

The couple were married in Kiev in April 1910.  Her family were totally against the marriage and refused to attend the service.  The young couple left Russia and travelled to Paris for their short honeymoon and it was then that she met and became a friend of Amedeo Modigliani, who like her, had a love of poetry.  Modigliani was undoubtedly attracted by her beauty as well as her poetry.  She was slim and elegant and everywhere she went in Paris, men’s heads would turn to admire her good looks.  Her husband was unimpressed by this attention and especially with the attention Modigliani gave his wife.  Anna returned to Russia with her husband but she and Modigliani continued to correspond for the next twelve months.  He was obsessed with her.  His letters to Anna became ever more intense and passionate and Anna recalled her short time with him during her honeymoon and their correspondence.  In a letter to a friend, she wrote:

“…In 1910, I saw him very rarely, just a few times. But he wrote to me during the whole winter. I remember some sentences from his letters. One was: Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise (You are obsessively part of me). He did not tell me that he was writing poems…”

In 1911 she returned alone to Paris and met up with Modigliani and this was the start of a short but passionate love affair.  Their affair had to remain a secret.  She dared not be seen in public with Modigliani in the guise of his lover in case word of it got back to her husband in Russia.  The affair lasted just two months and Anna returned to St Petersburg and her husband and never saw Modigliani again.

Beatrice Hastings
Beatrice Hastings

The second lady with whom Modigliani had an affair was Beatrice Hastings.  Beatrice was born in London in 1879, and was five years older than Modigliani.  She was the fifth of seven children.  Her real name was actually Emily Alice Haigh, but she used Hastings as her pen name.  Her father was John Walker Haigh, a Yorkshire wool trader.  He and his family immigrated to South Africa in the 1880’s.  Beatrix was a writer, poet and literary critic, and wrote extensively for the weekly British political and literary magazine, New Age.   During her life, she had a number of lovers, both men and women.  She was a fiery and self-willed character and in her youth caused her parents innumerable problems.  She was briefly married to Alexander Hasting, whom she said was a boxer.  Although a headstrong person she was also very able and was a talented singer and a gifted pianist.  She moved to Paris in April 1914 as a correspondent for the New Age journal, just before the onset of the First World War.  She contributed a regular column until 1916, entitled Impressions de Paris, which went down well with the English public who wanted to know about the bohemian lifestyle of the Parisian literati and the bohemian lifestyle of the Montmartre artists. 

Beatrice Hastings by Modigliani (1915)
Beatrice Hastings by Modigliani (1915)

Beatrice first set eyes on Modigliani in July 1914 when she was in the Café Rosalie in Paris.  Later she was introduced to him by a mutual friend, the sculptor, Ossip Zadkine, at La Rotonde café, which was situated in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris.  It was a famous café, opened in 1911 by Victor Libion, and was a favourite haunt of the aspiring writers and artists of the time, such as Picasso and Diego Rivera.   In her memoirs, Beatrix recalled those first meetings with Modigliani.  She wrote:

“…A complex character.  A swine and a pearl.  I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy.  Not at all impressed.  Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious, greedy.  Met him again at the Café Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture, blushed to his eyes and asked me to come and see his work  And I went.  He always had a book in his pocket.  Lautremont’s Maldoror.  The first painting was of Kisling.  He had no respect for anyone except Picasso and Max Jacob.  Detested Cocteau.  Never completed anything good under the influence of hashish…”

Modigliani was thirty and she was thirty-five when they first met.   He was down on his luck, almost penniless despite his mother still sending a monthly allowance but which was frittered away on alcohol and drugs.   The sale of his paintings had almost dried up and what he did sell went for a few francs.  His former patron Paul Alexandre, an avid buyer of his work, had gone to fight at the Front and at this time, he had nobody to promote or sell his art. 

Portrait of Beatrice Hastings before a door bny Modigliani (1915)
Portrait of Beatrice Hastings before a door bny Modigliani (1915)

Beatrice and Modigliani had a stormy love affair, which was to last until 1916.  In 1915 Modigliani moved in to Beatrix’s flat in the Rue Norvain which was on the Butte Montmartre.  In those two years they were together, Beatrice became Modigliani’s favourite model and he immortalised her in many of his paintings. 

Jeanne Hébuterne
Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani’s final love affair was with Jeanne Hébuterne.   Jeanne was born in Paris in April 1898 and was fourteen years younger than Modigliani.  Her elder brother André was an aspiring artist and he introduced Jeanne to many of the artists who lived around Montparnasse, some of whom she modelled for.  Following her own desire to become an artist she enrolled in 1917 at the Académie Colarossi and it was whilst studying at this establishment that she was introduced to Modigliani.  If nothing else, Modigliani was a woman’s man who had a certain magnetism and charisma which charmed the females he encountered.  She was nineteen and he was thirty-three.  She was a very beautiful young woman with the most amazing almond-shaped eyes.  She was slim, pale-skinned and had long light-brown braids.  Jeanne soon fell under his magical charm and before long, the pair became lovers.  They were very much in love and after a short while, she moved in to his lodgings on Rue de la Grande Chaumière.  Her parents, who were staunch Catholics, were horrified with this turn of events – their daughter had taken up with a penniless artist, shared his bed and to make things worse he was Jewish. 

Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace by Modigliani (1917)
Jeanne Hebuterne with Hat and Necklace by Modigliani (1917)

Jeanne was all Modigliani could ask for.  Besides her beauty which he admired, she seemed to be his soul mate.  For her it was a case of “unconditional love”.  She asked for very little in return from Amedeo and she put up with his excessive drinking.  In 1918, despite the terror of the First World War, Jeanne became pregnant.  If the horrors of war and being pregnant were not enough of a burden, Modigliani’s health was in decline.  It was fortuitous that two years earlier Modigliani had struck up a friendship with a Polish émigré and small-time art dealer Léopold Zborowski.  The art dealer had initiated a deal with Modigliani, that in return for his paintings, he would provide him with comfortable lodgings and studio space.  Now in 1918, Zborowski once again came to Modigliani’s rescue by arranging for him and Hébuterne to leave Paris and go to the warmer climes of Provence in Southern France and it was here on November 29th 1918, in the town of Nice that Jeanne gave birth to Modigliani’s daughter, Jeanne. 

Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne by Modigliani (1919)
Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne by Modigliani (1919)

Modigliani, Jeanne and their daughter returned to Paris in the Spring of 1919 and that summer Jeanne became pregnant once again.  In August of that year Modigliani was supposed to have gone to London to be present at an exhibition of some of his work but by then he was much too ill to travel.  Although he continued to paint, it was becoming increasingly more difficult as he would frequently have to stop to lie down and rest.  Eventually by the end of 1919 he was bed-ridden.  On January 22nd 1920 he was found unconscious in the apartment and was rushed to the pauper’s Hôpital de la Charité.  Two days later he died.  The medical report stated that he choked on his own blood.  The official cause of death was tubercular meningitis.  Reputedly his last words harked back to his love for the country where he was born.  His dying words being:

“…Italia, Cara, Italia…”

Amedeo Modigliani 1919. The  year before his death
Amedeo Modigliani 1919.
The year before his death

His girlfriend, Jeanne Hébuterne,whom he had promised to marry, and who was eight months pregnant with Modigliani’s second child was inconsolable.  She had been staying at her parents’ apartment whilst Modigliani was in hospital and her loss was so great that at 3am the day after her lover had died, she threw herself out of her parents’ fifth floor apartment window, killing herself and her unborn child.  Her parents had her buried in a grave in the Paris suburb of Bagneux with little ceremony, mortified and embarrassed at the life she had led with Modigliani and the way in which she had decided to end her own life.  Modigliani’s mother was unhappy that her son and the mother of his child were not at rest together and fought hard for this to be achieved.  Modigliani’s mother was also adamant that Jeanne’s daughter should be recognised as her son’s child. 

Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne's  grave at Piere Lachaise Cemetry Paris
Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne’s grave at Piere Lachaise Cemetry Paris

After three years of arguing with Jeanne’s parents, the body of Jeanne Hébuternes was exhumed and laid to rest in Modigliani’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and their daughter, Jeanne Hébuternes, who by this time was three and a half years old was recognised as Modigliani’s daughter, took his surname and inherited her share (one-fifth) of the proceeds from the sale of his paintings.  The dealers retained four-fifths! 

Having read so much about Modigliani I have tried hard not to be too judgemental.  It would be easy to say that he brought about his own downfall with his extensive use of drugs and bouts of heavy drinking but I think we need to look more carefully at his physical state before we pass judgement.  From his pre-teens days we know he had been unwell with pleurisy and later tuberculosis.  Tuberculosis at the time was a killer disease which was highly infectious and one train of thought is that Modigliani’s use of drugs and alcohol was not only to ease his suffering but was to mask his illness.  Unfortunately we are only too well aware how one can become drug and alcohol dependent and that, as was the case of Maurice Utrillo who had suffered a similar addiction due to mental issues, happened to Modigliani who had become totally reliant on alcohol and drugs. 

I have enjoyed looking at all Modigliani’s paintings and despite some who believe his drug and alcohol abuse added to his artistic talent I believe that had he been a well man, drug and alcohol-free, and lived longer, then who knows what masterpiece.

For those of you who would like to read more about Modigliani, try looking at these websites:

http://www.geni.com/people/Olimpia-Lumbroso-Modigliani/6000000014620610421

http://chez-edmea.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/jeanne-hebuterne.html#.UjAUzn80QWf

http://artinthestudio.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/modigliani-part-two.html

http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/11174/lot/53/

http://secretmodigliani.com/bio2.html

http://ineedartandcoffee.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/cubisms-birthplace-bateau-lavoir.html

http://www.abcgallery.com/M/modigliani/modigliani10.html

http://www.modigliani-drawings.com/paul_alexandre.htm

http://www.modigliani-drawings.com/Introduction.htm

http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2011/02/modigliani-finds-a-dealer/

Amedeo Modigliani. Part 3. The female nude paintings

I have changed my intended blog for today.  At the end of my last blog, I said that in the next one I would conclude Modigliani’s life story and look at some of the women in his life.  However, after careful consideration, I decided that it would not be right to end Modigliani’s life story without looking at his favourite artistic genre, the painting of female nudes.  In all between 1916 and 1919 he completed no fewer than twenty-six paintings of female nudes, some of whom are seated whilst others are seen lying back languorously.

We know that Amedeo’s love of painting females nude started back in Livorno where, at the age of fourteen, he attended the Villa Baiocchi workshop of the artist Guglielmo Micheli.  Later in 1902, when his mother took him away from their home in Livorno to aid his failing health, they visited Florence and in May 1902, just before his eighteenth birthday, he enrolled at the Scuola Libera di Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which was the beginning of his serious study of life drawing and which cultivated his love of painting female nudes.  In 1903 when he was in Venice he enrolled at the life drawing classes at the Accademia di Belle Arti and three years later, when he arrived in Paris at the end of 1906, he attended the Académie Colarossi where he attended life drawing classes.  The Académie Colarossi was a private institution, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, which offered its students an alternative to the very formalised state Academies.  It was very progressive and it is certain that Modigliani received some alternative approaches on how to depict the female nude.  In the Académie Colarossi life-drawing classes the students were encouraged to decide themselves on how the model should pose.  This was totally contrary to the strict rules and formalisation imposed by the likes of the state Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Without doubt, Modigliani’s most powerful compositions are his female nude paintings.  There is something simplistic and yet graceful about them but such simplicity does not decrease the erotic and sensuous nature of the works.  In many cases one feels that he has drawn upon earlier female nude paintings by other great artists for the resultant poses of his sitters.  The Italian art critic Giovanni Scheiwiller, who wrote a biography of Modigliani, wrote of the artist’s nude paintings and the artist’s relationship with his sitters, saying:

“…[it was] a completely spiritual unity between the artist and the creature he has chosen as his model…”

This bond between Modigliani and his models of course led to many racy stories of his penchant for the fairer sex and his belief that to completely capture  the inner beauty of his female sitter he must first make love to them!  It is maybe this kind of legend that contributes to our desire to see his work. 

Nude on a Blue Cushion by Modigliani (1917) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Nude on a Blue Cushion by Modigliani (1917)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Let us first look at Amedeo Modigliani’s oil on linen work entitled Nude on a Blue Cushion, which he completed in 1917.  It is part of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  The naked female lies back against a blue cushion and looks out at us with a challenging stare.  There is no hint of her being shy or introverted.  The look she gives us is one that almost suggests that she is tempting us with her body, which she is very proud of.  

Olympia by Edouard Manet (1863)
Olympia by Edouard Manet (1863)

If one looks at the famous 1863 painting, Olympia, by Edouard Manet (see My Daily Art Display Oct 12th 2011) we see in the sitter’s posture the same brazen look as she awaits her next client. 

Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) by Modigliani (1917) Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan
Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) by Modigliani (1917)
Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan

In his 1917 work entitled Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude) Modigliani has depicted the female laying back on a red blanket.  Her right arm lies at the side of her head whilst her left hand is placed beneath her head.  She is unashamedly offering her body to us.

La Maja Desnuda by Goya (c1800)
La Maja Desnuda by Goya (c1800)

This pose is very like Goya’s female nude painting entitled, La Maja Desnuda (My Daily Art Display Sept 9th 2012), which he painted around 1800.  She too lies naked before us albeit her upper torso is propped up by cushions but she, like Modigliani’s female has her hands behind her head.   Despite her very revealing pose, there is a certain vulnerability about Modigliani’s female in this work.  Her eyes are closed and we have therefore no idea of what she is thinking.  Our eyes are drawn to her red lips which are full and slightly pouted.  In a way it is as if she is giving herself to us.  She is offering us her ultimate gift – her body. 

Nude with Coral Neclace by Modigliani (1917) Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin College, Ohio
Nude with Coral Neclace by Modigliani (1917)
Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin College, Ohio

In another female nude painting which Modigliani completed in 1917 entitled Nude with a Coral Necklace and which is housed in the Allen Memorial College at Oberlin, Ohio, we can see a similarity between the pose of the Modigliani’s female sitter with the poses of the females in two of the greatest nude paintings of all times, Giorgione’s 1508 painting entitled, Sleeping Venus

Sleeping Venus by Giorgione (c.1508)
Sleeping Venus by Giorgione (c.1508)

and Titian’s 1558 work entitled, Venus of Urbino (My Daily Art Display Feb 15th 2011). 

Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)
Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)

In all three cases the models left hand is placed between her thighs in an effort to retain a modicum of modesty.  In the Modigliani’s work our eyes are drawn to her breasts because of his use of red to depict the areolas.  Unlike the other nude works the face of the women in this painting shows a hardness which I believe counteracts any sensuality.  Her facial expression differs from the other female nudes.  Her almond shaped eyes and tight-lipped mouth warn us off.  There is no hint of a “come-hither” look about this woman. 

Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise by Modigliani (1918)
Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise by Modigliani (1918)

His nude painting Red-haired Young Woman in Chemise was completed by Modigliani in 1918 in some ways reminds one of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

Botticelli's Venus
Botticelli’s Venus

Although in this work she is seated, she, like Botticelli’s nude, inclines her head slightly to one side and her right hand lies across her body, over her heart and touches her breast.  There is a definite sensuality about Modigliani’s painting in the way he has depicted the woman with her head at an angle.  She clutches her white chemise in an attempt to cover herself but she has failed.  The strap of the chemise has slid down her left shoulder.  Her right breast is fully exposed whilst her right hand hides her left breast from our view.   The way Modigliani has depicted her mouth with reddened lips, which are slightly parted, adds to the eroticism of this work.  Her facial expression is one of inquisitiveness as if she is questioning our presence. 

Female Nude by Modigliani (1916)
Female Nude by Modigliani (1916)

Of all his female nude paintings, my favourite is the one which hangs in the Courtaulds Gallery in London.  It is simply entitled Female Nude and was completed by Modigliani in 1916.  The female in this work is seated, which is unlike most of his other female nude works.  Her head rests on her shoulder.  Her eyes are closed.  Her full lips touch the delicate skin of her chest.  Her long black hair cascades down her back, but a few strands lie delicately across her right breast.  The unknown female sitter holds a demure expression.  Hers is an hour-glass figure.  The shading and the skin tone Modigliani has used reveals a slight swelling of her stomach.   She is a veritable beauty.  Once again the figure has an elongated face, a trademark of Modigliani.  Her cheeks are flushed with a rose-coloured tint.  Is this a sign of her embarrassment at posing for Modigliani or is she just being coy?  The painting was completed a year before he set about painting his large series of female nudes and was at a time when he was engaged in painting portraits of his friends and lovers. 

Vénus (Nu debout, nu médicis) by Modigliani (1917)
Vénus (Nu debout, nu médicis) by Modigliani (1917)

Modigliani’s works command very high prices.  The Modigliani Venus which he completed in 1917 when it last came up for sale had an estimated price of between $6 and $9 million but it sold for $14,200,000  and his work Nu assis au collier (Seated Nude with Necklace) had, in 1995, sold for $12.5 million. 

Seated Nude on Divan by Modigliani (1917)
Seated Nude on Divan
Nu assis sur un divan (La Belle Romaine)
by Modigliani (1917)

However the highest price paid for a Modigliani nude came in November 2010 when his painting Nu assis sur un divan (La Belle Romaine), came up at Sotheby’s New York auction.  Its estimated price was $40 million but with five bidders competing for the work its sale price reached $68.9 million, four times the price it realised when it was sold at Sotheby’s in 1999.    

Price Evolution in Modigliani's paintings
Price Evolution in Modigliani’s paintings

I came across an interesting graph (above) on the website (http://secretmodigliani.com/auctions.html) which showed how Modigliani’s paintings have consistently risen in value.   Who says art is a bad investment?   

Poster for Berthe Weill's 1917 exhibition of Modigliani's works
Poster for Berthe Weill’s 1917 exhibition of Modigliani’s works

I could not end this blog about Modigliani’s nude paintings without recounting the well known tale of Modigliani’s first and only, one-man show which his patron and friend, Leopold Zborovski had managed to cajole the art dealer Berthe Weill to hold at her Paris gallery, Galerie B. Weill.  Weill had first opened her gallery in 1901 and in 1917 moved to a more spacious one at 50 rue Taitbout in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, close to the Paris Opera.  Weill was dedicated to the cause of giving young up-and-coming artists, like Modigliani a chance to become recognised.  Over almost forty years, until the gallery closed in 1939, works by all the modern greats such as Raoul Dufy, Kees van Dongen, André Derain, Georges Braque,Vlaminck, Diego Rivera and mother and son Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo had their works exhibited at her gallery. 

Modigliani’s one man show was set for December 3rd 1917 and being exhibited at it were thirty drawings and paintings including a number of his female nude paintings, one of which was in the window of the gallery and attracted a lot of public attention.   Unfortunately for Weill and Modigliani, across from the gallery was a police station and the police, to their horror, soon noticed the crowds gathering to look through the window of the gallery at the nude figures.  The police commissioner ordered Weill to close the exhibition describing the paintings as being “filth”.  So why this strange decision and this prudish statement?  Female nudes had been painted for many years and life classes were part of the artistic syllabus at the formal Academies?   However that was the nub of the matter as the Academies taught that the female nude should be depicted only in certain poses and Modigliani’s nudes did not conform to that dictate but even more horrifying to the police commissioner was that Modigliani had depicted his female nudes as having pubic hair…shocking!!!!!   Modigliani had gone back to the pre-Academy days when strict rules regarding the posture of female nudes did not exist.   Goodness knows what the police commissioner would have made of the works of Egon Schiele !!!!!  Despite Weill’s argument that it was art, the commissioner of police would not change his mind and the exhibition closed before it began !

My final look at the life of Modigliani in my next blog will take in his final years and look at some of the women with whom he developed a close relationship.

                                                                                ……to be continued.

Amedeo Modigliani. Part 2 – Sculpture and a disappointed commission

I ended my last blog about Amedeo Modigliani with him having arrived in Paris in January 1906, thanks to financial help from his mother.  For that first year in Paris, Modigliani, who still had some of his mother’s money left over, was seen as a well dressed, gentle man who got on with his art in a quiet way, one who socialised little, drank wine in moderation and even looked askance at the excesses of some of the artists, such as Picasso, who frequented the lodgings, bars and studios of Montmartre, but all this would change twelve months later. 

L'Amazone by Modigliani (1909)
L’Amazone by Modigliani (1909)

At the end of the following year, 1907, he met and became great friends with Doctor Paul Alexandre who loved his artistic work.  The doctor bought more than twenty-five of his paintings and numerous sketches.  One painting the doctor ended up with was L’Amazone, which was finally completed by Modigliani in 1909.  It was not one the doctor had intended to buy but was one which, on his recommendation, was commissioned by Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villers.  The baroness was a beautiful socialite and also the lover of the doctor’s younger brother, Jean.  She posed for this painting by Modigliani dressed in a riding habit.  There is a sophisticated beauty about the bone structure of her face and her exaggerated and elongated jaw line.  She glances out at us in an imperious manner, with her black-gloved hand on her hip.  The commission was a nightmare for Modigliani.  His sitter was a nightmare and was ever demanding for the commission to be completed and at one point, when she had completely lost patience with him, threatened to cancel the commission if the work was not completed within the next seven days.  Modigliani had worked slowly on the work and had made a number of preliminary sketches for it.  On being presented with the portrait the Baroness was horrified by the way she had been depicted and refused to take ownership of it.  In the end Doctor Alexandre bought it. 

Étude pour L'Amazone by Modigliani
Étude pour L’Amazone by Modigliani

Although the sitter was not impressed with the finished work others have loved it and it was only this May that the painting, and three of the preliminary studies for the work, came up at auction at Sotheby’s, New York.  The painting was sold for $23 million and the three studies fetched a total of just over $1.3 million !  Paul Alexandre actively sought out commissions for Modigliani and the friendship between the two lasted until 1914 when the doctor was called-up by the military to take part in the World War I.  Doctor Alexandre had been instrumental in who persuading Modigliani to exhibit some of his works at the Salon des Independants, which had been formed in 1884 as an alternative to the Paris Salon. 

It was also through Paul Alexandre that Modigliani met the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi in the early part of 1909, shortly after moving to his new studio at 14 Cité Falquière in Montparnasse, and it was Brancusi who persuaded Modigliani to work, like himself, on stone sculptures.  During their time together Brancusi introduced Modigliani to the world of African sculpture and art.   Although we associate Modigliani with painting and drawing, his true love is thought to have been sculpture.  Between 1910 and 1914, Amedeo Modigliani almost abandoned painting and concentrated his time on sculpture and the related drawings which were used as preliminary sketches to the finished sculpted figures.

Caryatid by Modigliani (1914) MOMA New York
Caryatid by Modigliani (1914) MOMA New York

One such preliminary sketch, which is now at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, was entitled CaryatidA caryatid is a column, used to support an entablature, and is in the form of a draped female figure.  The sketched figure of the woman in Modigliani’s work is balanced on a pedestal, her arms reach behind her head which is tucked into her shoulder.   Modigliani was fascinated by the theme of the caryatid.  One day he said that he hoped to be able to sculpt a series of them in stone and they would then be positioned around a temple which would be dedicated to the glory of mankind. 

Caryatid sculpture by Modigliani  (The Museum of Modern Arts, New York)
Caryatid sculpture by Modigliani
(The Museum of Modern Arts, New York)

However Modigliani only ever completed one such sculpture which is now housed in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Tête by Modigliani (1909)
Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Probably the best known of Modigliani’s sculptures was the limestone sculpture entitled Tête which, along with six others, Modigliani exhibited at the 1912 Salon d’Automne.   It is just 65cms tall and is a depiction of the elongated head of a woman who is wearing a tribal mask with her flowing hair swept back.  The characteristics of Modigliani’s sculptured heads with their long oval faces, elongated necks and noses, almond-shaped eyes, became typical of his portraiture works.  The head of Tête is very vertical in form but the hair extends back in a strongly horizontal manner.  It is said that for a true appreciation of the work it should be viewed all around.  On one side, it looks like the flowing locks of hair seem to be blowing in the wind.   The neck of the figure is slender.   When it came up at Christie’s Paris auction in June 2010, it was described as possessing:

“…the paradoxical combination of structural clarity and emotional inscrutability that is character of the artist’s finest work. Pared-down to a series of simple geometric forms, rigidly frontal and rigorously symmetrical, Tête emanates a feeling of haunting mystery. Behind the stylized semi-circles for eyes, one senses the presence of a fragile, numinous core…” 

Tête by Modigliani (1909)
Tête by Modigliani (1909)

Modigliani’s Tête was almost certainly influenced by his friend and mentor, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi but maybe more so by examples of tribal art which he had seen in the Paris gallery of the Hungarian-born art dealer, Joseph Brummer.  Being a friend of Picasso, Modigliani would also have seen African and Oceanic art work which the Spanish painter had accumulated.  Tête had been purchased by Gaston Lévy, an avid art collector and who would later become co-founder of the French supermarket chain, Monoprix, at a sale at the Hotel Drouot in June 1927 and it remained in the family for eighty-three years.  The sculpture is often referred to as The Lévy Head.   Lévy died in 1977 but it was not until 2010 that the sculpture came up for sale at Christies in Paris.  When the bidding for the sculpture ended the estimated price of between $3 and $4 million seemed derisory as the hammer went down at a price of $52,620,923.  This was a world record for a work by Modigliani and in fact it was the highest price ever paid for a work sold in France.  In my final blog about Modigliani I will look at his love affairs, his death at such a young age and the tragic consequence of his passing.

                                                    ……………………………………. to be continued.

Amedeo Modigliani. Part 1 – The birth of an artist

Amedeo Modigliani (1884 - 1920)
Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920)

The artist I am featuring today has a connection with my last few blogs as, whilst he was living in Paris, he befriended Suzanne Valadon’s son, Maurice Utrillo, and became one of his drinking companions.  Today and in my next blog I want to look at the life of the Italian figurative painter and sculptor, Amedeo Modigliani.

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani was born into a Jewish family in the Italian sea port of Livorno, on the Ligurian Sea on the western coast of Tuscany.  Livorno at the time had a thriving Jewish community, as like many others, Modigliani’s Jewish forefathers had settled in the Italian city to escape religious persecution.  In the early 17th century Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, had enacted an edict of tolerance for Jews and their right to practice their religion and the Tuscan seaport became a safe haven for the Spanish Jews who had suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholic Spanish rulers.  In return the Jewish community played a major part in creating the mercantile wealth of the city. 

Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo
Eugene Garsin and Flaminio Modigliani parents of Amedeo Modigliani in a picture taken c.1884 a few months before the birth of Amedeo

Amedeo Modigliani’s mother was Eugénie Garsin whose family came from Marseille.  Her parents were elite and wealthy Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had established themselves along the Mediterranean coast.  The Garsins belonged to the great tradition of Jewish scholars.  Her parents had been involved in finance and real estate.  Eugénie was well educated and a highly intelligent and resourceful woman.   Amedeo’s father was Flaminio Modigliani, whose family came from Rome and the Roman Campagna region and who had descended from a family of business people, bankers and entrepreneurs.  Flaminio Modigliani moved from Rome to Livorno in 1849.  

Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia
Villa Modigliani, Grugura, Sardinia

Flaminio’s father, Emanuele and his grandfather, Abramvita had purchased an estate on the outskirts of Cagliari, Sardinia and owned swathes of Sardinian land, about thirty thousand acres in all, around Grugua were they built a beautiful and opulent residence.  Their wealth came from the fertile farmland, timber from their forests and, around the end of 1863, zinc ore and coal deposits were discovered on their land close to the small town of Iglesia. 

Flaminio Modigliani was a talented mining engineer and forestry manager, who, along with his brothers, Abramo and Alberto, had become wealthy with their involvement in their mineral mining venture and forestry work on their estate in Sardinia.    Flaminio and Eugénie Garsin married in Livorno in 1872.  Amedeo was their fourth child, having two elder brothers, Giuseppe Emmanuel (Mene), who became a senior union leader and Socialist Deputy, Umberto, who would become a mining engineer, and an elder sister, Margherita, who became a primary school teacher.  The family lived in a two storey mansion at No.38 Via Roma in Livorno.  They had an opulent lifestyle with a household full of servants. 

Amedeo, who was affectionately known as “Dedo”, was born on July 12th 1884 at their Via Roma home in Livorno.  It was a very traumatic time for the Modigliani family for their fortunes had suddenly changed for the worse.  There had been an economic decline in Europe and with it came a sudden drop in the price of metals which resulted in Flaminio Modigliani’s business empire crashing and he was made bankrupt.  The only thing which prevented the family losing all their wealth was an ancient Italian statute which stated that creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or as in the case of Eugénie, a mother about to give birth and so, the story goes, that on the day of Amedeo’s birth, the family quickly collected all the household and family valuables and put them on the bed in which Eugénie lay, giving birth to her son.   When the bailiffs arrived to take away all the family possessions they found that the most valuable of them had been piled high on top of Eugénie as she lay in bed and therefore they could not be confiscated!   Modigliani is quoted as saying later in life that he was born under the auspices of the ruin. 

Amedeo with his nurse
Amedeo with his nurse

In 1886, the family move to a smaller less luxurious home.  Amedeo’s father was away from home for long periods of time searching for business opportunities and so Amedeo lived with and was brought up by his mother Eugénie, her two sisters Eve Laure and Gabrielle, his maternal grandmother and his maternal grandfather, Isaac Garsin.  In her diary Eugénie wrote about her two year old son Amedeo, describing him as being: 

“…a little spoiled, a bit temperamental but as pretty as a heart…” 

With his father absent for long periods Amedeo formed a close bond with his grandfather, Isaac, an extremely learned man.  During his early childhood Isaac, who was now the only adult male in the household, would spend hours talking to his grandson about art, travel and Jewish history.   Amedeo’s mother, Eugénie, an ever practical and capable person, realised that the family needed an inflow of income and with the help of family friends set up a school in their house on via delle Ville, where she and her sister Laure taught local children. She also received paid work translating the poetry of the Italian poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio and was a book reviewer.

Amedeo was schooled at home up to the age of ten by his mother but throughout his early childhood he had many health problems.  In 1895, aged just eleven, he was struck down with pleurisy.   His mother recalled the time in her diary:

“… Dedo had a very severe pleurisy and I did yet recovered from the terrible fear that made ​​me . The character of the child is not yet formed enough that I can say my opinion here . His manners are those of a spoiled child who does not lack intelligence. We will see later what’s in this chrysalis. Perhaps an artist ?… “.


At the age of ten Amedeo was devastated by the death of his grandfather, Isaac, who had spent so much time with him.  It was also the year in which his elder brothers had left home to study at the University of Pisa.    Amadeo’ health deteriorated further in his teenage years and he contracted typhoid fever when he was thirteen years old but most serious of all when he was sixteen years of age he developed tuberculosis, which twenty years later would kill him.  In August 1898, when he was fourteen years old and still attending his local school, Amedeo had his first artistic tuition when, as the youngest pupil, he attended drawing lessons at the workshop of the Livorno-born artist, Guglielmo Micheli, who had, on the ground floor of Villa Baiocchi, set up and directed a school of design, which many local students attended.  The following year he finished attending the local school for health reasons and all his efforts were now concentrated on art and the tuition given to him by Micheli.  At the school he studied all genres of art – landscape painting, portraiture, still life but his favourite was the painting of the nude and he attended a life-drawing class in Gino Romiti’s Livorno studio.  It was at Micheli’s art school that he was befriended by a fellow student and aspiring artist Oscar Ghilia who would become one of Modigliani’s closest friends.  Unfortunately his artistic studies were cut short in September 1900 when he developed pleurisy and tuberculosis.   In December, his mother decided to take him away from the cold damp climate of Livorno and move to the warmer climate of southern Italy and the two of them travelled to Naples, Capri, and Amalfi and spent the winter of 1901 in Rome.  It was here that he also first developed a love for sculpture.  During his travels he visited the major museums making copies of the paintings by the Italian Masters.   Modigliani fell in love with Rome and in one of his many letters to his friend Oscar Ghiglia he wrote:

“…As I speak to you, Rome is not outside but inside me, like a terriblejewel set upon its seven hills as upon seven imperious ideas.  Rome is the orchestration which girds me, the circumscribed arena in which I isolate myself and concentrate my thoughts.  Her feverish sweetness, her tragic countryside , her own beauty and harmony, all these are mine, for my thought and my work…”

On May 7th 1902, having arrived in Florence, Amedeo enrolled at the Scuola Libera del Nudo of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti which would be the beginning of life drawing and his love of painting nudes.  His friend Oscar Ghilia was already studying in Florence and he and Amedeo shared the same lodgings. 

The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)
The Jewess by Modigliani (1908)
The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after settling in Paris in 1906. It was purchased by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Although wearing a composed expression, the stark whiteness of the sitter’s face contrasts harshly with her dark apparel, giving the composition and inner tension and suggesting strong emotions lying beneath the surface. The painting’s melancholic overtones have invited comparison with the work of Picasso’s Blue Period. The painting is also one of the few Jewish-themed works by Modigliani, who was of Sephardic Jewish descent and publically embraced his Jewish identity. – See more at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-modigliani-amedeo.htm#sthash.3ddvm6uN.dpuf

The Jewess was the first painting Modigliani sold after he moved to in Paris in 1906. It was bought by his friend and patron, Paul Alexandre, who was so taken with the work that he had Modigliani paint it into the background of three additional commissioned portraits. Contrasting her calm and self-possessed expression, is the stark whiteness of the her face against her dark clothes which in some ways gives the picture a strong emotional feel. The painting’s melancholic overtones have often been compared to Picasso’s works during his Blue Period.   Although Modigliani was Jewish by birth, this was on of the few Jewish-themed works by him.

In 1903 after another bout of illness Amedeo moved to Venice where that May, he enrolled at the Instituto di Belle Arti di Venezia and lived in lodgings in Campielle Centopiere. All this travelling and studying costs money but fortunately for Amedeo he was being financed by his maternal uncle, Amadeus Garsin.  It is whilst in Venice that Amedeo develops a taste for the seedier side of life.  Bouts of heavy drinking, taking of the drug hashish and his association with prostitutes were to him all part of an exciting and stimulating bohemian lifestyle.  He now began to make plans to move to Paris, which was the centre of avant-garde art and where he believed his favoured bohemian lifestyle would fit in well with the artists of Montmartre.  However his high-spending lifestyle and plans to move the French capital came to an abrupt end in 1905 when his uncle, Amadeus, died and the source of his income dried up.  His mother comes to his rescue in December, whether because she was worried about his health or whether it was because she wanted to separate her son from the excesses of Venice, one will never know, but she gave him the money to make the journey to Paris and in January 1906 Amedeo Modigliani descended upon Montmartre. 

After a number of short stays in various hotels, Modigliani went to live in Le Bateau-Lavoir, in Montmartre, a dark and dingy building which was home to many impoverished artists.  Unlike some of the bedraggled and tramp-like characters who lived there, Modigliani, still having some of the money left that his mother had given him, strutted the streets in a quite well-dressed manner and hired himself a studio for himself in Rue Caulaincourt.  It was during those early days that he met artists such as Picasso, Andre Derrain and Diego Rivera and it was then that he concentrated his art work on small-scale portraiture and at the end of 1906 he had three of his works exhibited at the Paris Art gallery of Laura Wylde’s Paris art gallery on the corner of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.   He enrolled in the life drawing classes at the Académie Colarossi.  An artist by day and despite his poor health a reveler by night, during which time he and his fellow artists would drink copious amounts of alcohol in the form of cheap wine or absinthe, take drugs and spend their nights in various women’s beds.   His was a debauched lifestyle which could have done little for his health. He was soon accepted by all the Montmartre artists, who nicknamed him “Modi”.    Ludwig Meidner, the German artist, summed up Modigliani when he said of him:

“…Our Modi was a character and, at the same time, highly talented representative of Bohemian Montmartre; he was probably even its last true Bohemian…”.

Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)
Portrait of Doctor Paul Alexandre by Modigliani (1909)

It was around about this time that Amedeo Modigliani first met Suzanne’s son, Maurice Utrillo and her husband André Utter.  However more importantly he became acquainted with a young doctor, about his own age, Paul Alexandre, who loved Modigliani’s work and bought some of his paintings and sketches and soon became his first patron arranging portraiture commissions for him. 

Doctor Paul Alexandre
Doctor Paul Alexandre

Paul and his brother Jean were so pleased to be part of the Montmartre art scene that they set up a free house in Rue Delta for the artists to work in and stay.   The house was then known as “Delta”.  In a book entitled The Unknown Modigliani by Paul Alexandre’s son Noel, he recounts the tale of how his father and Amedeo first met:

“…It was not entirely by chance that I met Modigliani. From the time I first had a little independence after leaving college I began to associate with artists. It was Doucet who first brought him to the Delta. I think it was in November or December 1907. Doucet had met him in the rue Saint Vincent at Frédéric’s ‘Lapin Agile’ which in those days was only frequented by poor people, poets and artists. Modigliani told Doucet that he had been thrown out of the small studio he had occupied in Place Jean-Baptiste Clement and that he did not know where to go. This was shortly after his arrival in Paris. He was earning nothing, he had exhausted the few resources he had brought from Italy and found himself penniless. Doucet offered to bring him to the Delta where he could stay, if he wanted, and where he could keep his belongings. This was how my friendship with Modigliani began. I was twenty-six years old, Modigliani was twenty three…”

                                                             ……………………….to be continued

 

 

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)
Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)

When you walk around an art gallery I wonder how long you spend in front of each painting.  I suppose it depends on the type of painting and whether it is part of a crowded special exhibition when you are jostled from one painting to the next by a crowded sea of viewers.  I suppose it also depends on your time management as if you are coming to the end of your allotted time you tend to jump from one picture to the next in a desperate attempt to not miss a single one, although in a way your hurried state probably means that the last few painting remain just a blur in your mind.   So why do I ask this question about time management and carefully appreciating the paintings before us?   The answer is that during a recent visit to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid I had left the room, which housed the fifteenth century art collection till last and I was constantly aware that my time at the museum was running out.   I found myself flitting from one painting to another and I have to admit by doing so I failed to take in the beauty of the works in that section of the gallery.   That was until I came across two stunning works which I could hardly drag myself away from.  They were just such beautiful paintings.  Yes, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for me they were truly exquisite.   I stood before them, totally mesmerised by their intrinsic charm and so I am dedicating my next two blogs to those two 15th century works. 

The Wdding Medalion
The Wdding Medalion

Today I want to offer you a beautifully crafted portrait by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio entitled Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni which he completed in 1490 and which is now part of the permanent collection at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.   Giovanna was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni who came from the wealthy Florentine banking family and whose father, Giovanni was Domenico Ghirlandaio’s patron.  We know this is the image of Giovanna as at the time of her marriage to Lorenzo a series of bronze portrait medals with her image were made to commemorate the event and the likeness of the figure on the medal and in the painting is undeniable.   Lorenzo and Giovanna married in June 1486 but sadly she died giving birth to her second son in 1488, at just twenty years of age.  As the portrait was completed after she died, it is thought that it could be looked upon as a kind of remembrance painting.   The painting hung in her husband’s private rooms in the Tornabuoni Palace.

We see Giovanna before us, half-length, in a somewhat rigid profile.  In her hands she clasps a handkerchief.  Giovanna is dressed in the most sumptuous way.  She wears a giornea which is an open-sided over-gown, which is brocaded.  The design on the brocade features the letter “L” and a diamond.   The “L” is her husband, Lorenzo’s initial and the diamond was the Tornabuoni family emblem.  There is no doubt that she is one of Florence’s élite by the way she wears her hair in the very latest Florentine fashion.  The jewels she wears around her neck comprise of two rings and pendant which were given to her by Lorenzo’s family as a wedding gift.  If you look closely at the pendant she wears you will also notice a matching brooch designed in the shape of a dragon which lies on a shelf behind her.   The jewel with its dragon, two pearls and a ruby formed a set with the pendant hanging from a silk cord around her neck.   Behind her, on the shelf, is a prayer book which is thought to be the libriccino da donna (little ladies’ book).  Above the book hangs a string of coral beads which have been identified as a rosary.   Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of this prayer book and the rosary in the painting was testament to Giovanna’s religious beliefs and her piety. 

What did Ghirlandaio think of his sitter?  Will we ever know?  Actually the answer lies within the painting itself because just behind Giovanna’s neck we can see attached to the shelf a cartellino.   A cartellino (Italian for small piece of paper) was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, often as though attached to a wall or parapet in a painting.  On the cartellino added by Ghirlandaio in this painting are the words:

ARS UTINAM MORES

ANIMUMQUE QUE EFFINGERE

POSSES PULCHRIOR IN TERRIS NULLA TABELLA FORET

 

which translates to:

 

“…Would that you, Art, could portray her character and spirit ;  for then there would be no fairer painting in the world..”.

At the bottom there is the date:

“MCCCCLXXXVIII”. (1488)

By these words there is no doubt Ghirlandaio is excusing himself to Giovanna for his belief that he has not been able to show her real inner beauty.  These are fine words from our artist but in fact they were not quite his own as they are a slight variation on the words of an epigram (a short and concise poem) of the Latin poet Marcus Galerius Martial, whose works were all the rage with the Florentine aristocracy of the day.

My featured artist today was born Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi.  The name was derived in part from his father’s surname Curadi and the surname of his grandfather Bigordi.  He was born in Florence in 1449, the eldest child of Tommaso Bigordi and Antonia di ser Paolo Paoli.  His father was a goldsmith and was well-known for creating metallic garland-like necklaces which were worn by the ladies of Florence, and it was for that reason that Domenico was given the nickname Il Ghirlandaio (garland-maker).   Domenico worked in his father’s jewellery shop and it was during his time there that he started sketching portraits of customers and passers-by.   According to the famous biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, Domenico’s father decided to afford his son some formal artistic training and had him apprenticed to the Florentine painters, Alesso Baldovinetti and later Andrea del Verrocchio.

Domenico will always be remembered for his exquisite detailed narrative frescos in which he would incorporate portraits of the local aristocracy resplendent in their finery.  Many of his frescos appeared in local Florentine churches.  In 1482, he also completed a Vatican commission for Pope Sixtus IV – a fresco in the Sistine Chapel entitled Calling of the First Apostles.  The frescos he will probably be best remembered for were two major fresco cycles, which he completed with the help of his brothers, Davide and Benedetto along with his brother-in-law, Bastiano Mainardi, who was one of Domenico’s pupils.

 

The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Girlandaio
The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Ghirlandaio

The first of these frescos was for the Sassetti Chapel in the church of St Trinita in Florence.  It had been commissioned by Francesco Sassetti, a rich and powerful banker who worked for the Medici family.  This cycle of frescos was in six parts and depicted the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi, who was Sassetti’s patron saint. Seen within the frescos were a number of portraits of members of the Sassetti family along with some of the leading figures from the Medici family.  To look at the two families within the frescos one would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Sassettis and the Medicis were very close, which of course was precisely the allusion Francesco Sassetti had wished to convey.  Alas for him, the close bond between the two families was all in his mind!

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio
Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The second fresco cycle, Ghirlandaio’s last, and many art historians believe was his greatest, was commissioned to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence by another banker, Giovanni Tornabuoni, who was related by marriage to the Medicis.   There was a connection between the two fresco cycles as Sassetti had the rights to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church and he had wanted to have the frescos in the church depict the life of St Francis.   However the church was in trust to the Dominican order and they refused to allow such a design, so it was then that Sassetti decided to have the St Francis frescos painted instead in the Sassetti Chapel of the St Trinita Church in Florence and he sold the rite to decorating the Capella Maggiore to Giovanni Tornabuoni

 Ghirlandaio had not even completed the Sassetti fresco cycle when he was given this second large scale commission and he had to bring in most of the workers from his large Florentine studio to help him in this four-year project which was finally completed in 1490.  

The reason for talking about this fresco cycle is that I want you look closely at Ghirlandaio’s fresco, the part entitled Visitation.  Look at the third woman from the right.  Do you recognise her?   It is a full length portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni who was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni whose father, Giovanni was the commissioner of the fresco work and who was also my subject of today’s featured work.

The painting had a number of owners but in 1907 the American millionaire financier and philanthropist and founder of the J.P. Morgan bank,  J. Pierpont Morgan bought it in 1907.  It is believed that he adored the painting as it reminded him of his first wife, Amelia Sturgis, who like Giovanna had died very young.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, just four months after she and J.P. had married.   It entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection from the Morgan Library, New York, in 1935.

Whereas J.P. Morgan had his painting on view in his home to remind him of his wife I have a print of it on my breakfast room wall to remind me of Giovanna’s beauty as I serve guests with their breakfasts.

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)
Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)

“…One must embrace all forms of art…”

With those words from the lecturer who gives us weekly Art History talks still ringing in my ears when I dared query the relevance of Surrealism, Abstract and Performance Art, I will, for his sake, attempt to seduce you with a modicum of Pittura Metafisica and talk about the life of its founder and main proponent and leave you to decide whether you can embrace my tutor’s concept.

Pittura Metafisica or Metaphysical Art was a movement formed by the Italian painter, writer and theatre designer, Giorgio de Chirico and is a term applied to his work in the early twentieth century and to the work of his friend Carlo Carrà.  So in a few words, what is Metaphysical Art?   It is a depiction of dream-like things with sharp contrasts of light and shadow which sometimes gives the impression of being slightly threatening and has a mysterious quality. There is often a feeling of neoclassicism about the works and in many instances there is a mood of depressing purposelessness and a scary-type remoteness of a world alienated from man and, by the way the artist has arranged completely unrelated objects in the work, has somehow created a secret, often magical meaning to the work with their recognizable iconography and their illusory depictions with their subverted one-point perspective.  Often within the paintings, regularly of types of architecture found in Mediterranean cities, one would see classical statues or what look like tailor’s mannequins or expressionless human beings.  To this was often added inanimate objects such as coloured toys, geometrical instruments, fruit and small realistic paintings.

Giorgio de Chirico was the elder son, born in Vólos, Greece in 1888, of Italian parents.  His mother was Gemma Cervetto,  a noblewoman of Genoese origin and his father, Evaristo, was from Sicily.  He had a brother Andrea, who was two years his junior, and the two would remain close friends and confidants until the death of their mother in 1936 at which time, they started to drift apart.  The parents had moved from Tuscany and were living in Greece as his father was an engineer who was involved in the overseeing of the construction of the Greek railway system in Thessaly.  Giorgio and his brother  had early parental encouragement to take an interest in art and in the stories from Greek mythology and this latter was probably made somewhat easier by the fact that de Chirico’s home town of Vólos was built on the area which was once the site of the ancient port of Ioclos, which was were Jason boarded his ship Argo accompanied by the Argonauts as they set sail in their quest to find the Golden Fleece.  De Chirico’s childhood health was not good and it is recorded that he suffered from numerous bouts of stomach disorders which could well be the reason for his ever increasing bouts of melancholy which would, in later life, turn towards a more serious form of depression and lead him to having a fairly jaundiced view of life.  His initial artistic training came at the age of seven when his father arranged for him to have drawing lessons from a Swiss painter, Emile Gilleron, who taught his young charge the fundamentals of drawing.  De Chirico completed and signed his first work, a depiction of a galloping horse, at the age of seven, which was acquired by the Austrian-Hungarian Consulate General in Vólos.  In 1899, his father moved the family from Vólos to Athens.

In 1903, at the age of fifteen, Giorgio attended the Athens Polytechnic, which at the time was both an engineering school and the Academy of Fine Art. Here he studied drawing and painting and received tuition from, amongst others, Georgios Roilos and Konstantinos Bolonakis, who were the most important and influential Greek painters of the late 19th-early 20th century.  De Chirico’s father died in 1905 and this event is thought to have been a contributing factor to Giorgio’s failure in his final Academy exams that same year.   In the autumn of the following year, the family left Greece and went to live in Munich where Giorgio enrolled at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.    It was during de Chirico’s eighteen month tenure at the Academy that he came across and was influenced by the artistic works of the Swiss Symbolist painter, Arnold Böcklin and the bizarre works of the German Symbolist painter and sculptor, Max Klinger.   It is thought that their art was one of the reasons why de Chirico began to reject naturalism and instead concentrate on more illusionary and imaginary subjects for his paintings.   He was also influenced by the literary works of the German philosophers, Schopenhauer, Weininger and Frederick Nietzsche.  It was Nietzsche who tried to persuade artists of the time to “refute reality”.

In March 1910, de Chirico left Germany and travelled to Milan to rejoin his mother.  He stayed there for six months before moving on to Florence the following year.  Whilst staying in the Tuscan city he studied the works of the great thirteenth century Florentine painter and architect Giotto de Bordone.   It was whilst in Florence that de Chirico began a series of works known as his Metaphysical Town Square paintings, which depicted deserted public squares with sombre monolithic arches which cast giant dark shadows.  The first painting in the series which he completed in 1910 was entitled The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and the idea came to him after he spent an afternoon wandering around the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence.  He recalled that time and what he experienced on that day and explained his painting by saying:

“…One clear autumn afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square…The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent…Then I had the strange impression I was looking at these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye. Now each time I look at that painting I see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable…”

In July 1911 he and his mother left Florence and headed for Paris where his brother Andrea was living but on his way they stopped off for a few days at Turin.  De Chirico liked Turin and was intensely stimulated by what he saw in that city and often referred to the city’s architecture, with all its archways and piazzas, as the ‘metaphysical aspect’ of Turin, something which would shape his art in the future.  De Chirico arrived in the French capital that same month, joining his brother Andrea and it was through him that Giorgio de Chirico was introduced to Pierre Laprade who held the powerful position as one of the jurists at the Salon d’Automne.  De Chirico managed to get three of his works exhibited at that 1912 Salon and in 1913 exhibited paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, one of which he sold.  Soon his works became popular and he was introduced to the Parisian art dealer, Paul Guillaume with whom he signed a contract to produce more works for sale.  At the time, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was looked upon as the apostle of modern art, noticed de Chirico’s canvases and the two met at one of Apollinaire’s soirées.  Apollinaire was the first person to coin the term metaphysical to de Chirico’s art in an article he wrote for the left-wing French newspaper,  L’Intransigeant.  It was also through Apollinaire that Giorgio de Chirico and his brother, Andrea met Pablo Picasso and the Fauvist painter, André Derain.  Apollinaire showed great interest in the Giorgio’s work and soon became a great supporter of the artist introducing his work to the late Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio Morandi, and René Magritte.  The Surrealists were influenced by his paintings but de Chirico had a love-hate relationship with them and when his style changed he was criticised by the Surrealists and he turned on them referring to them as “the leaders of modernistic imbecility.”

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, de Chirico decided to leave Paris and return to Florence.  In June 1915, de Chirico and his brother were conscripted into the Italian army and sent to join their regiment in Ferrara.  In 1917, he suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the town’s military hospital.  It was whilst at the hospital that he met the artist Carlo Carrà and together they decided to launch the art movement la scuola metafisica (Metaphysical Painting movement).  When the war ended in 1918, the two artists set out the basic theories of the Pittura Metafisica and de Chirico published their ideas in the form of articles for the magazine Valori Plastici, a newly founded Rome-based magazine which focused on the aesthetic ideals and metaphysical artwork. The articles focused on his belief that there should be a return to traditional methods and iconography.  Although their Metaphysical Painting movement and ideas influenced the Surrealist painters of the time, the movement was short-lived and ended shortly after the two founders, de Chirico and Carrà fell out in 1919.

 From 1918 de Chirico’s work was exhibited extensively in Europe.  He returned to Paris in November 1924 but he no longer had the support from his friend Apollinaire who had died six years earlier.  This time during his stay in the French capital he became friends with the surrealist painters Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí. In 1929, Giorgio de Chirico married the Russian ballet dancer Raissa Gurievich Kroll and he worked with the Russian Ballet company of Sergei Diaghlev and during the next six months designed scenery and costumes for them. His first marriage ended in 1930 and he remarried that same year to another Russian émigré Isabella Pakswer.  This second marriage lasted for the rest of his life. In that year he also published an autobiographic novel Hebdomeros, Le peintre et son génie chez l’ecrivain.  In August 1935 he moved to New York, buoyed by the success of his earlier exhibitions in the city.  He remained there until January 1938 and then headed back to Italy eventually settling down in Rome.  Giorgio de Chirico died in Rome in 1978, aged 90.

The featured painting by de Chirico I am featuring today is entitled Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure), which he completed in 1914 just before he left France for Italy.  It is a classical example of his early work.  The setting for the work is the Paris station Gare Montparnasse and we see the long shadows and deep colors of early evening.  It is a dream-like, somewhat nightmarish depiction and some art historians believe that the subject of the painting coincided with a period of acute homesickness experienced by de Chirico whose overwhelming and all-consuming thought was to leave Paris, board a train and return to Italy.  One can only conjecture on some items he has included in the work and one can only ask questions which remain unanswered about other objects.  In many of de Chirico’s works, including this one, a steam train is featured and this could well be due to his early memories of his father, the railway engineer, and his fascination with rail transportation.  The painting is strange in many ways.  Look at how the smoke from the steam train rises vertically and yet the flags on the clock tower and the building to the left flutter furiously in a wind coming from right to left.  Was there a reason for this inconsistency?   There is absolutely no perspective in the way the artist has depicted the yellow road on which we see two figures and yet to the left of the road there is a structure which visibly recedes into the distance.  So why apply the laws of perspective to one element of the painting and not the other?  The strangest part of this painting is the inclusion of a large bunch of bananas in the right foreground of the painting.  This is not the first time such an object has been incorporated into his paintings, but what is the significance of this fruit with a French railway station?  I am sure art historians have had a field day postulating on the meaning!

I will leave you to decide whether you can take on board my art lecturer’s advice to “embrace all forms of art”.  For me his advice is a little hard to swallow!

Philosophy, a Self Portrait by Salvator Rosa

Philosophy, a Self-portrait by Salvator Rosa (c.1645)
Philosophy, a Self-portrait by Salvator Rosa (c.1645)

Today’s featured work is another self-portrait, this time by the 17th century Italian Baroque painter, poet and printmaker, Salvator Rosa.  Salvator Rosa was a man of many talents and possibly one of the most daring and inventive artists of the Italian 17th century.   Although in Britain, he is often best remembered for his unparalleled wild landscapes and mountain scenery, and it was just those scenes which Horace Walpole, the English art historian, antiquarian and politician so memorably wrote that what he witnessed during his 1739 journey crossing the Alps into Italy, some fifty years after Rosa’s death was so like the landscape works of the late artist:

“…Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings – Salvator Rosa…

But Rosa was not simply a landscape painter.  It was Rosa who invented a series of new types of painting – novel allegorical pictures, which were characterised by poignant and melancholy poetry; whimsical portraits of romantic and mysterious figures; grisly and shocking subjects, which demonstrated the more sinister side of 17th-century triumphalism. Many believe that no other artist has managed to create windswept landscapes of such expressive and emotional power, or figures of such brooding intensity as those depicted in the artwork of Salvator Rosa.

Salvator Rosa was born in 1615 in Arenella, a hill-top suburb of Naples.  His father, a land surveyor, Vito Antonio de Rosa, believed that his son would be well-served if he became a priest or a lawyer and with this in mind enrolled him into the convent run by the Somascan Fathers.  Although his father had mapped out his future life, young Salvator had his own ideas for his future and had shown a liking and a propensity for the arts and a love of sketching and painting.  His first formal artistic tuition was given to him by Francesco Francanzano, the artist who had married Salvator’s sister and then he studied at the Naples studio of the Baroque painter Aniello Falcone.  Falcone although having painted numerous religious works and frescos for Neapolitan churches, will be primarily remembered as the first specialist of battle paintings.  It was this painting genre that won him an international acclaim and he was dubbed L’ Oracolo delle Battaglie.  It was also this genre that inspired Salvator Rosa. Falcone’s battle paintings generally depicted war as a disorderly struggle between unknown soldiers, and by so doing, created a depiction which was described as ‘the battle scene without a hero’.

In 1632 when Salvator was seventeen years of age is father died and his mother and five siblings, without their husband and father’s financial support, became destitute.  Salvator continued to work for and be mentored by Falcone and helped him with his battle paintings.  It is believed that the Rome-based painter Giovanni Lanfranco saw some of Rosa’s work and suggested that he would be best served artistically if he moved to and based himself in the Italian capital.  Rosa took Lanfranco’s advice and moved to Rome in 1634 and stayed there for two years.  In 1636 Rosa returned to Naples and concentrated on landscape painting.  There was a romantic and haunting element to his landscape work, often populated by shepherds, soldiers, brigands, and mythological characters. In general his landscapes avoided the idyllic and pastoral calm countrysides depicted by the likes of Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill and the contrast between his work and theirs was often commented on.     Claude Lorrain and Paul Brill created brooding, melancholic fantasies, awash in ruins and brigands. By the eighteenth century, the contrasts between Rosa and artists such as Claude was much remarked upon.   The 18th century Scottish poet and playwright wrote about such differences in his 1748 poem, The Castle of Indolence.  He wrote:

“…Whate’er Lorraine light touched with softening hue

Or savage Rosa dashed, or learned Poussin drew…”

I featured one of Salvator Rosa’s landscape painting, River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl in My Daily Art Display of May 10th 2012.

At the age of twenty-three Salvator returned to Rome and worked on commissions including an altarpiece for the bishop of Viterbo, a town to the north of the capital.  The bishop treated him as his protégé and Rosa received many commissions from the Catholic Church.  It was during his stay in Rome that Rosa further developed his multi-talented skills, not just as an artist but as a musician, a writer and a comic actor.  Rosa founded a company of actors in which he regularly participated. He wrote and would often take part in his own satirical plays.  The plays were often political in nature and often lampooned the wealthy and powerful, and it was his devilish satire which gained him the reputation of a rebel, pitting himself against these influential people. However these acidic satires made him some powerful enemies including Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous and powerful architect and who was at that time, the most powerful artist in Rome.   He, like Rosa, was also an amateur playwright and it was during the Carnival in 1639 that Rosa ridiculed Bernini’s plays and his stature as a playwright.  Eventually Rosa had made too many enemies in the Italian capital and decided it was just too dangerous to remain in the city.

He left Rome and travelled to Florence, where he remained  for the next eight years.  One of his most influential Florentine patrons was Cardinal Giancarlo de’ Medici, who was a great lover and supporter of the Arts.  Rosa worked for the Cardinal at his palace but was still allowed the freedom to spend time on his own landscape paintings and he would go off and spend the summers in the Tuscan countryside around Monterufoli and Barbiano.   It was whilst living in Florence that Rosa did some work for Giovanni Battista Ricciardi who was at the centre of the literary and theatrical life of Florence and Salvator soon became part of Carlo’s circle of friends. Rosa used his own house as a meeting place for local writers, musicians and artists and it became known as the Accademia dei Percossi, or Academy of the Stricken.

He left Florence in 1646 being unhappy with the ever increasing restrictions put on him and his artistic and literary work by the Medici court.  Initially, he went back to Naples where he remained for three years before returning to Rome once again in 1649 for it was here that he believed his writings and paintings would win him even greater fame.  However, one of Salvator Rosa’s problems was himself for he often had a tempestuous relationship with his patrons, frequently ignoring their demands. Another of his quirks was that he refused to paint on commission or to agree a price beforehand.  He frequently rejected interference from his patrons in his choice of subject.  In a book by Francis Haskell, a twentieth century art historian,  entitled, Patrons and Painters: Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, Haskell quotes from a letter Rosa wrote to one of his patrons, Antonio Ruffo, explaining his thoughts on his art and commissions:

“…I do not paint to enrich myself but purely for my own satisfaction. I must allow myself to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt…”

The 17th century Florentine art historian Filippo Baldinucci could not believe Rosa’s attitude to his patrons and wrote:

“…I can find few, in fact, I cannot find any, artists either before or after him or among his contemporaries, who can be said to have maintained the status of art as high as he did… No one could ever make him agree a fixed price before a picture was finished and he used to give a very interesting reason for this: he could not instruct his brush to produce paintings worth a particular sum but, when they were completed, he would appraise them on their merits and would then leave it to his friend’s judgment to take them or leave them….”

In his later years Rosa spent much time on satirical portraiture, history paintings and works of art featuring tales from mythology.   In 1672 he contracted dropsy and died six months later.  Whilst lying on his deathbed he married Lucrezia, his mistress of thirty years, who had borne him two sons. He died in March 1673 just a few months short of his fifty-eighth birthday.   From the absolute poverty he endured on the death of his father he had managed to accumulate a moderate fortune by the time of his death.

My featured painting today is a self-portrait by Salvator Rosa which he completed around 1645 whilst he was in Florence.  Rosa stands before us wearing a cap and gown symbolising a man of learning.  His giant-like figure is silhouetted against a turbulent sky, dark with the threat of a storm.  Rosa looks at us, tight-lipped.  His distinctive swarthy looks are easily recognisable from his other self-portraits.  His face is gaunt and yet animated.  He is brooding and like the weather depicted in the background, he looks as though a storm is also brewing within him. He looks somewhat angry.  His demeanour is challenging and rather scornful.   His dark hair is matted and his face is depicted with unshaven stubble.  The artist had obviously decided to portray himself as an “angry young man” intensely proud of his unshaven image.  His posture could possibly be likened to one of anti-establishment and could be compared to present day photographs we see of angry and sullen rock stars

His right hand rests on a stone tablet on which has been carved a Latin epigram:

“…Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio..”

Which when translated reads:

“…Be quiet, unless your speech be better than silence…”

This epigram comes from the Ancient Greek historian and teacher, Dionysius of Halcarnassus.

The painting can be seen at the National Gallery in London.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)
Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)

Let me introduce you to a female artist, whom I am ashamed to admit, I had never heard of, but whom Giorgio Vasari, the Italian biographer of artists, made the following comment:

“…[She] has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, colouring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings…”

My featured artist today is the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Her christian name came from a strong family connection to ancient Carthaginian history and her parents named their first daughter after the tragic Carthaginian figure who lived and committed suicide during the Second Punic War.  Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, a city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, around 1532.  Her father was Amilcare Anguissola and her mother was Bianca Ponzone.  Both parents came from affluent and noble families and they lived a privileged and affluent lifestyle.  Sofonisba was the oldest of seven children.  She had one brother, Asdrubale and five sisters, Elena, Lucia, Europa, Minerva and Anna Maria.   All of her sisters except Minerva became artists.

Having come from such an advantaged family background was somewhat unusual for women artists of the sixteenth century, as any of note, tended to be daughters of impoverished artists.  The family wealth coupled with the father’s belief that all females should be educated ensured that Sofonisba received an all-round and extensive education, including studying drawing and fine art.   The fact that she came from a wealthy and privileged background did not however avoid the restrictions imposed by the Italian art establishment, such as forbidding female artists from studying anatomy or attending life drawing classes as it was deemed inappropriate for a female to view a naked model, which consequently meant a female could not study the human anatomy to the same extent as a male artist could and because of this she was unable to carry out the complex multi-figure compositions which were at the heart of the popular large-scale religious and historical works.  With those obstacles in mind, Anguissola decided to concentrate on portraiture using female models, which were accessible to her, and instead of historic settings she concentrated on having her sitters shown in homely and unceremonious settings.  Self-portraits and portraits of family members were her most frequent subjects and it was not until much later in life that she turned to paintings incorporating religious themes.

Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)
Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)

At the age of fourteen Sofonisba and her sister Elena attended the studio of Bernardino Campi, the Italian Renaissance religious painter and portraitist who was based in Cremona.  She pictorially recorded the time she was with Campi in her double portrait depicting her mentor painting a portrait of her.  The work, entitled Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, was completed by her during her last year as his pupil in 1550, when she was just eighteen years old.   After Campi, Sofonisba studied under the Italian artist Bernardino Gatti, often known as il Sojaro, and continued being tutored by him for three years, eventually leaving him when she was twenty-one years of age.

In 1554, Anguissola journeyed to Rome, where she spent her time sketching various scenes and people. The highlight of her stay in the Italian capital was when she was introduced to the great Master himself, Michelangelo Buonarotti.   We know the two met as in the Buonarrotti Archives held in Florence there is a letter, dated May 1557, from Sofonisba’s father Amilcare to Michelangelo in which he writes thanking him for spending time with his daughter:

“…honourable and thoughtful affection that you have shown to Sofonisba, my daughter,

to whom you introduced to practice the most honourable art of painting…”

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)
Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)

Intrigued by her artistic talent Michelangelo asked her to sketch him a picture of a weeping boy and the result was her sketch entitled Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish.  Sofonisba rose to the challenge and sketched her young brother, Asdrubale, being bitten and being comforted by one of his sisters.  Michelangelo was so impressed with the drawing that he gave her some sketches from his notebook and asked her to copy them in her own style.  She complied with his request and the results of her efforts again astounded the Master and because he recognised how artistically talented she was, for the next two years, he agreed to mentor her.  Again we have been made aware of the high regard in which Michelangelo held Sofonisba’s work as in a letter dated May 1558, (held in the Buonarrotti Archives) her father wrote to Michelangelo thanking him for praising his daughter’s artwork:

“…[you were] kind enough to examine, judge, and praise the paintings done by my

daughter Sofonisba…”

In 1558, aged twenty-six, Sofonisba Anguissola left Rome and went to Milan and it was here she received a commission to paint a portrait of Ferdinand Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba.  The sitter was so pleased with the resulting painting that he recommended her to Philip II, the King of Spain.  Court officials invited Sofonisba to come to Madrid and be part of the Spanish court.  This fact alone is clear evidence of Sofonisba’s artistic talent and her success, as it would have been unheard of that such a powerful leader as Philip II would countenance an insignificant artist being invited to join and live at the Spanish court and paint for his new Queen.

Late in December 1559 she arrived in the Spanish capital and took up her role at the Spanish court as a court painter as well as being one of the attendants to the Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Infanta Isabella, and later as a lady-in-waiting to her mother, Philip’s new queen, his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois (the Queen consort, Isabel of Spain) who was an accomplished amateur portrait painter.  This shared love of art between Sofonisba and Elisabeth flourished and Sofonisba would often offer artistic advice and give the queen some artistic tuition.   Sofonisba soon received many official commissions to paint portraits of the king and queen’s family and courtiers.  These were very different to her earlier portraiture work which were very informal as Philip and his wife wanted the portraits he had commissioned Sofonisba to paint to show the wealth and power of the sitters by paying attention to background and peripheral objects such as fine and sumptuous clothing, jewelled adornments and priceless furnishings.  This type of portraiture took time and skill but the finished products were always well received by the sitters.

Her artistic talents were also recognised by another powerful leader, Pope Pius IV who asked Sofonisba to paint a portrait of the Queen consort, Isabel, and have it sent to him.  Giogio Vasari in his book, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) quotes a letter the pontiff sent Sofonisba thanking her for the painting and praising her work.  In the letter he wrote:

“… Pius Papa IV. Dilecto in Christo filia.

 We have received the portrait of our dear daughter, the Queen of Spain, which you have

sent… We thank you and assure you that we shall treasure it among our choicest possessions,

and commend your marvellous talent which is least among your numerous qualities

 Rome, 15 October 1561…”

In 1571 Sofonisba married Don Francisco de Moncada, who was the son of the Prince of Paterno, Viceroy of Sicily.  King Philip II facilitated the marriage, and paid her dowry of twelve thousand pounds.  She remained at the Spanish court for a further seven years after which time, and with Philip’s permission, she and her husband left Madrid and travelled to Palermo, Sicily. They arrived in Palermo in 1578 but sadly her husband died the following year.  The year following her husband’s death, Sofonisba decided to visit her family back in Cremona and embarked on a sea passage from Palermo to Genoa.   She never made it back home as she fell in love with the young captain of the ship and the couple married shortly after, in January 1580, in Pisa.  Sofonisba was forty-seven years of age and was much older than her seafaring husband.  The couple settled down at the seaport of Genoa and with her husband’s money, along with a pension from Philip of Spain, the pair had a comfortable lifestyle and Sofonisba had her own quarters including an art studio within her husband’s family’s large house.  Her reputation as an accomplished artist spread throughout Europe and she received many visits from young aspiring painters.  The couple moved to Palermo and were visited in 1624 by the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, who at the time was twenty-five years old and travelling around the island of Sicily recording his travels in words and sketches in his diary.  At the time, Sofonisba was ninety-two years old and van Dyck sketched Sofonisba sitting in a chair.   All around the sketch he wrote notes in Italian, a rough translation of which is:

“…portrait of the painter Signora Sofonisba, done from life in Palermo in the year 1624, on 12 July: her age being 96 years, still with her memory and brain most quick, and most kind, and although she has lost her sight because of her old age, she enjoyed to have paintings put in front of her, and with great effort by placing her nose close to the picture, she could make out a little of it…”

It is interesting to note that according to van Dyck, Sofonisba was 96 years old in 1624 and this of course would make her birth date 1528 which is some four years earlier than the date given in a number of reference books.

Page from van Dyck's sketchbook
Page from van Dyck’s sketchbook

Van Dyck recorded in his diaries that her eyesight was weakened (it is thought she suffered from cataracts) but for a lady of 92 (or 96!) she was still mentally alert.  She had completed her last work in 1620 and had become a patron of the arts.  On November 16th 1625, Sofonisba died in Palermo aged 93.

On her birth centenary seven years later, her husband had a plaque placed on her tomb which read:
“…To Sofonisba, my wife…who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man…

Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman…”

Sofonisba was not only appreciated in her own lifetime but continues to be appreciated in modern society albeit I had to admit her name was new to me, which gives you some idea as to my artistic knowledge!

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is an early self portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola which she completed in 1556 and is entitled Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel.  It is housed at the Museum-Zamek in the town of Lancut in south-east Poland.

This is one of many self portraits by the artist, which she sent as gifts to prospective patrons as she could not respectably enter into competition with male artists for paid commissions.   Around this time, there was a highly respected author, Baldassare Castiglione, the count of Casatico, an Italian courtier and diplomat, who held great sway with the public with regards manners at the court and how one should behave if of noble birth.  The book, which had a widely circulated publication in 1528, was entitled The Courtier.  In a way it was also a torch-bearer for women’s equality as it advocated the same education for aristocratic women as that offered to aristocratic men and one can only presume that Sofonisba’s father had read the book and agreed with its conclusions as he made sure that his daughters were not only educated in Latin, classical literature, history, philosophy, math, and sciences, but also that they were schooled in the courtly arts, such as music, writing, drawing, and painting.  Castiglione had written in his book about how aristocratic women of the court should dress.  He wrote:

“…she should always dress herself correctly and wear clothes that do not seem vain and frivolous…”

We can see by the way Sofonisba has depicted herself in this self portrait, wearing a modest black gown, lace collar and cuffs, the absence of jewellery and a simple hairstyle, which precluded any hint of easy virtue, that she had taken on board the advice given by Castiglione in his book.

Sofonisba looks out at us, brush in hand.  She is in the act of painting and is simultaneously the subject and object, the painter and the model of the painting.  Her painting is a re-working of the legend of St Luke the Evangelist, who it was believed, was the first to have painted a portrait of the Virgin but in this painting she has taken on the role of St Luke  and we see her painting of the Virgin and Child resting on the easel.

I love this self portrait.  There is nothing fancy about Sofonisba’s portrayal of herself.  It is an understated depiction.  It is a somewhat discreet portrait of a virtuous noblewoman and its beauty and exquisite artwork challenged the belief in those days that women artists lacked artistic skills.

La Fornarina by Raphael Sanzio

La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)
La Fornarina by Raphael (1520)

My Daily Art Display today features an Italian lady, Margarita Luti.  She became known as La Fornarina which in Italian means “the baker’s daughter”.  She was the daughter of Francesco Luti, a local baker from Siena who worked in the Roman district of Santa Dorotea.  The reason she became famous was not because of her father’s occupation but because she modelled for and was the mistress of the great Italian High Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio.  It was well documented that Raphael Sanzio was a very passionate man and had many mistresses in his time.  In the book, The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, the biographer described the artist and how his love of women affected his work:

“…Raphael was a very amorous man who was fond of women and he was always quick to serve them. This was the reason why, as he continued to pursue his carnal delights, he was treated with too much consideration and acquiescence by his friends. When his dear friend Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the first loggia in his palace, Raphael could not really put his mind to his work because of his love for one of his mistresses; Agostino became so desperate over this that, through his own efforts and with the assistance of others, he worked things out in such a way that he finally managed to bring this woman of Raphael’s to come and stay with him on a constant basis in the section of the house where Raphael was working, and that was the reason why the work came to be finished…”

Although Margarita Luti is not actually named by Vasari her name does appear in scribbled notes on the original pages of the manuscript which would become his second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.  The painting entitled La Fornarina, by Raphael hangs in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and a further copy can be found in the Galleria Borghese, in Rome.  The work was completed around 1520 when Raphael was thirty seven years of age.  This was also the year in which on Good Friday, April 6th he died. Before us is a portrait of a beautiful young woman who is almost nude.  Her skin is flawless as alabaster. Her cheeks are flushed and pink, She stares out to her left and smiles, presumably at the artist as he works on her portrait.

Venus Pudica
Venus Pudica

She is pictured with an oriental style hat on which is attached a large jewel Her breasts are bare. Her right arm crosses her body and her right hand pulls a diaphanous veil over her stomach and abdomen in a gesture which mirrors the posture of women as seen in classical sculptures such as the Venus pudica, apose that became the custom for the nude Aphrodite figures in the Late Classical period.   It is a very suggestive pose and I am not sure whether she is attempting to cover her breast or in fact she is turning it slightly towards us and her lover, Raphael.  Or could it be that her right hand is pressed against her heart as she looks at Raphael as a gesture of her love for him?  Her left hand rests between her thighs, the fingers splayed out and outlined by the deep, bloody-red of her discarded gown.  On her left arm there is a narrow leather band on which is the name of the artist – RAPHAEL URBINAS.  On the third finger of her left hand she appears to be wearing a ruby wedding band.   The presence of a ring was only discovered in the early part of the twenty-first century when the painting underwent some X-Ray analysis during restoration and cleaning work.

The fact that Raphael painted her with a wedding ring would have been very controversial at the time for six years earlier, in 1514; he had become engaged to marry.   He had been pressured by Cardinal Medici Bibbiena’s to marry one of his nieces, a lady named Maria Bibbiena.   Raphael did not want to refuse the Cardinal, but managed to postpone the matter, saying that he would prefer to wait three or four years before entering into marriage.  However after stringing along the cardinal and his niece for four years, Raphael had to agree to the marriage, but managed to keep putting off the date for the big occasion with a string of excuses.   So why had this engagement lasted six years without it ever ending in marriage?  There are a number of theories.  One is that Raphael had already married Margarita Luti in secret years earlier and therefore could not marry Maria Bibbiena.  Another possible reason is that his engagement to Maria had brought him additional status.  He was made a “Groom of the Chamber”, a papal valet, which in itself afforded him status at court and more importantly an additional income.  He would not want to jeopardise that.  He was also made a knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur, an honour which was also bestowed on the artists Titian and Vasari.   All such honours would have been lost if he had had to admit to being already married.  So why was the ring on the sitter’s finger not discovered immediately?  It was not just the ring, which was painted out, as the restoration work also uncovered that the myrtle branches we see filling the background of the painting and which are thought to be symbolic of love and marriage were not always there.  The X-Ray analysis of the painting show that originally there had been a landscape background, similar to that seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
The reason for the over-painting is that it is thought that the work which was found in Raphael’s studio when he died had “finishing touches,” added, including a cover-up of the Margarita Luti’s ring finger by his student, Giulio Romano, who then went on to sell the painting.

Raphael Sanzio died in April 1520 possibly even on April 6th, the day of his 37th birthday.  There are numerous speculative explanations as to the cause of his death.  Probably the most bizarre was put forward by Vasari when he postulated that Raphael died on his 37th birthday after a wild night of celebratory sex with Margarita causing him to lapse into a fever and when a doctor arrived Raphael was too embarrassed to admit to what had brought on this feverish state and then had been given the wrong medicine by the doctor which went on to kill him.  Other historians, who also disagree of the date of his death, have put his demise down to working too closely with arsenic and lead based paints or overwork or heart failure.

And so I leave you with one of the world’s greatest artists and his portrait of the love of his life, but is it?  Is this a portrait of the little baker’s girl who became Raphael’s lover?  Some would disagree.  Some art historians, including Doctor Claudio Strinati, superintendent of the National Museums of Rome, now believe that the way in which Raphael’s has depicted the lady is too refined to have been just done for his own pleasure and in fact, due to the quality of the work, was a commission for a wealthy and influential patron and that patron could have been his friend Agostino Chigi.  According to this theory, the woman in the painting was not Margarita Luti but Chigi’s long-time mistress, and later his wife, Francesca Ardeasca.  We know that Chigi had commissioned Raphael to work at his new “palace”, the Villa Farnesina, and the two had become friends so much so that when the lovelorn Raphael’s mind was so distracted having been parted from his beloved Margarita whilst working on the commission, Chigi had supplied a room in his palace for Margarita so that he could better focus on the work in hand.

So is this enchanting portrait of the dark-eyed woman we see before us today Raphael’s paramour or his patron’s wife?  Is this a painting carried out for love or for money?  We will probably never know for sure as there are no other portraits of Chigi’s wife, Francesca, and therefore no possibility to compare likenesses.  Maybe this doubt adds to the mystification of the portrait and I will let you make up your own minds.

Having extolled the beauty of some other women in featured paintings in early blogs I look at this lady and question her purported beauty but as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” I will again allow you to decide and leave you with the comments made by French writer, Gustave Flaubert who wrote about La Fornarina in his satirical work entitled Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas):

“…Fornarina.  C’était une belle femme; inutile d’en savoir plus long…”

(Fornarina. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know)