Giovanni Segantini (15 January 1858 –
28 September 1899) was an Italian painter known for his large
pastoral landscapes of the Alps. He was one of the most famous
artists in Europe in the late 19th century, and his paintings were
collected by major museums. In later life he combined a Divisionist
painting style with Symbolist images of nature. He was active in
Switzerland for most of his life.
Giovanni Battista Emanuele Maria Segatini [sic] was born at Arco in
Trentino, which was then part of the County of Tyrol in the
Austro-Hungarian Empire. He later changed his family name by adding
another "n" after the "a". He was the second child of Agostino
Segatini (1802–1866) and Margherita de Giradi (1828–1865). His older
brother, Lodovico, died in a fire the year Giovanni was born. During
the first seven years of his life his father, who was a tradesman,
traveled extensively while looking for work. Except for a six-month
period in 1864 when Agostino returned to Trentino, Segantini spent
his early years with his mother, who experienced severe depression
due to the death of Lodovico. These years were marked by poverty,
hunger and limited education due to his mother's inability to cope.
In the spring of 1865 his mother
died after spending the past seven years in increasingly poor
health. His father left Giovanni under the care of Irene, his second
child from a previous marriage, and again traveled in search of
work. He died a year later without returning home and leaving his
family nothing. Without money from her father, Irene lived in
extreme poverty. She was forced to spend most of her time working
menial jobs while leaving Giovanni to subsist on his own.
Irene hoped to improve her life by
moving to Milan, and in late 1865 she submitted an application to
relinquish Austrian citizenship for both her brother and her. She
either misunderstood the process or simply did not have enough time
to follow through, and although their Austrian citizenship was
revoked she neglected to apply for Italian citizenship. As a result,
both Segantini and his sister remained stateless for the rest of
their lives. After he became famous Switzerland offered him
citizenship on more than one occasion, but he refused in spite of
many hardships, saying Italy was his true homeland. After his death
the Swiss government successfully awarded him citizenship.
At age seven Segantini ran away and
was later found living on the streets of Milan. The police committed
him to the Marchiondi Reformatory, where he learned basic cobbling
skills but little else. For much of his early life he could barely
read or write; he finally learned both skills when he was in his
mid-30s. Fortunately a chaplain at the reformatory noticed that he
could draw quite well, and he encouraged this talent in an attempt
to lift his self-esteem.
In 1873 Segantini's half-brother
Napoleon claimed him from the reformatory, and for the next year
Segantini lived with Napoleon in Trentino. Napoleon ran a
photography studio, and Segantini learned the basics of this
relatively new art form while working there with his half-brother.
He would later use photography to record scenes that he incorporated
into his painting.
The following year he returned to Milan and attended classes at the
Brera Academy. While there he became friends with members from a
transformative movement known as Scapigliatura (the "Disheveleds"),
which included artists, poets, writers and musicians who sought to
erase the differences between art and life. Among his closest
friends at the time were Carlo Bugatti and Emilio Longoni, both of
whom profoundly influenced his work and his interests.
His first major painting, The
Chancel of Sant Antonio (Il Coro di Sant'Antonio), was noticed for
its powerful quality, and in 1879 it was acquired by Milan's Società
per le Belle Arti. That work attracted the attention of painter and
gallery owner Vittore Grubicy de Dragon, who became his advisor,
dealer and his life-long financial supporter. Grubicy and his
brother, Alberto, who was a co-owner of the gallery, introduced
Segantini to the works of Anton Mauve and Jean-François Millet. Both
of these artists influenced Segantini's work for many years.
That same year he met Bugatti's
sister, Luigia Pierina Bugatti (1862–1938), known as "Bice", and
they began a life-long romance. Although Segantini tried to marry
Bice the next year, due to his stateless status he could not be
granted the proper legal papers. In opposition to this bureaucratic
technicality, they decided to live together as an unmarried couple.
This arrangement led to frequent conflicts with the Catholic church
that dominated the region at this time, and they were forced to
relocate every few years to avoid local condemnation.
In spite of these difficulties,
Segantini was thoroughly devoted to Bice throughout his life. He
wrote many love letters when he was away from her, sometime
including wild flowers that he had picked. Once he wrote "Take these
unsightly flowers, these violets, as a symbol of my great love, When
a spring comes in which I fail to send you such violets, you will no
longer find me among the living."
In 1880 he and Bice moved to
Pusiano and soon thereafter to the village of Carella, where they
shared a house with their friend Longoni. It was in this mountain
scenery that Segantini began to paint en plein air, preferring to
work in the outdoors than in a studio. While he worked outside Bice
would read to him, and eventually he learned to read and write.
Later he would write articles for Italian art magazines, and he was
a prolific letter writer to Bice when he traveled and to other
artists throughout Europe.
At this time he painted the first
version of Ave Maria (Segantini Museum, St. Moritz), which took a
gold medal at the 1883 World's Fair in Amsterdam. As his fame rose,
Segantini entered into a formal agreement with the Grubicys to be
the sole representatives of his work. While this allowed Segantini
more freedom to pursue his artistry, the dealers were consistently
slow in fulfilling their financial obligations to the artists. The
family struggled for many years in relative poverty, even as Bice
gave birth to four children: Gottardo (1882–1974 ), Alberto
(1883–1904), Mario (1885–1916) and Bianca (1886–1980). To help Bice
care for his family, Segantini employed a young maid, Barbara "Baba"
Uffer, who also became his favorite model for his paintings. Baba
stayed with the family throughout their periods of penury and many
households, but unlike many artist/model relationships of the time
there is no evidence that they had any romantic involvement.
During this period Segantini
produced several important paintings using Baba as a model,
including Mothers, After a Storm in the Alps, A Kiss and Moonlight
Effect (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen).
In 1886 Segantini sought a less
expensive place to live and, attracted by the beautiful mountain
scenery, he moved his family to Savognin, Graubünden. From November,
1886, to March, 1887, Grubicy stayed with the Segantinis in their
new home. Excited by the recent work of Mauve and others, Grubicy
suggested that Segantini further separate his colors in order to
increase their brilliance. The artist applied this advice to a
second version of Ave Maria, in which he used the Divisionist
painting technique for the first time. His bolder style was
immediately acclaimed by audiences; Segantini received gold medals
in Munich (for Midday in the Alps) and Turin (for Ploughing). The
following year the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool purchased his
major painting, The Punishment of Lust.
It is thought that Grubicy introduced the concept of Symbolism to
Segantini during his recent visit. Because of his connections with
artists in France, Grubicy would have known about the recently
published Symbolist Manifesto by Jean Moréas. This essay is credited
with introducing visual artists to the then nascent literary
movement led by Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul
At the 1890 Salon des XX in
Brussels, Segantini was given an entire exhibition room, an honor
awarded such greats as Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. While his fame
had increased throughout Europe, he was never able to attend
international shows because he could not obtain a passport due to
his stateless status. Frustrated that the government would not grant
him citizenship papers in spite of his fame, Segantini refused to
pay cantonal taxes in Savognin. After creditors pursued him he moved
his family to the Engadin valley (altitude 5,954 feet/1,815 meters)
in another part of Switzerland. There the high mountain passes and
clear light become his chief subject matter for the next five years.
After he moved higher into the
mountains he began to study philosophy, concentrating on those
writers who questioned the meaning of life and one's place in the
natural world. He studied Maeterlinck, D'Annunzio and Goethe and
especially Nietzsche, becoming so fascinated with the latter that he
drew an illustration for the first Italian translation of Thus Spoke
Soon after arriving he made the
acquaintance of Giovanni Giacometti, father of Alberto Giacometti,
and an artist in his own right. Giacometti would later paint a
portrait of Segantini on his death bed and complete some of
Segantini's unfinished works posthumously. Segantini also met and
corresponded at length with Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, an Italian
Neo-Impressionist whose color techniques he admired.
Segantini continued to gain recognition in Italy, and in 1894 the
Castello Sforzesco in Milan put on a retrospective of ninety of his
works. At the first Venice Biennale in 1895, Segantini was awarded
the Prize of the Italian State for his painting Return to the
Homeland. He continued to gain fame when a whole room was devoted to
his work in the Munich Secession in 1896. After seeing his painting
The Sad Hour in Munich, the director of the Alte Nationalgalerie in
Berlin purchased the work for that museum. That same year his
painting Ploughing is bought by the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.
In 1897 Segantini was commissioned
by a group of local hotels to build a huge panorama of the Engadin
valley to be shown in a specially built round hall at the 1900
Exposition Universelle in Paris. For this project he worked almost
exclusively outdoors on large canvases covered by substantial wooden
shelters. Before it was completed, however, the project had to be
scaled down for financial reasons. Segantini redesigned the concept
into a large triptych known as Life, Nature and Death (Segantini
Museum, St. Moritz), which is now his most famous work. He continued
to work on it until his death.
Segantini's importance as an
international artist was further established that same year when the
Austrian state financed a luxury monograph on his work. Museums
throughout Europe vied to buy his paintings, including The Comfort
of Faith, purchased by the Hamburger Kunsthalle and The Bad Mothers
(Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna), bought by the Vienna
Secession. In 1899 an entire room is devoted to Segantini's work at
the annual exhibition of the Societe des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
Eager to finish the third part of
his large tryptich, Nature (Segantini Museum, St. Moritz) Segantini
returned to the high altitude of the mountains near Schafberg. The
pace of his work, coupled with the high altitude, affected his
health, and in mid-September he became ill with acute peritonitis.
Two weeks later he died. His son Mario and his partner Bice were
with him at his death bed.
At the end of November a memorial
exhibition of his works was put on display in Milan. Two years later
the largest Segantini retrospective to date took place in Vienna. In
1908 the Segantini Museum was established in St. Moritz, its design
inspired by one of the sketches for the pavilions for the Engadine
More than anything else, Segantini's work represents the
quintessential transition from traditional nineteenth-century art to
the changing styles and interests of the twentieth century. He began
with simple scenes of common people living off of the earth ‒
peasants, farmers, shepherds ‒ and moved toward a thematic symbolist
style that continued to embody the landscapes around him while
intertwining pantheistic images representing "a primeval Arcadia."
Over the course of his life he moved from both the physical and
emotional internal, such as his scene of motherhood in a stable, to
the grand external views of the mountain scenery where he chose to
Nature and the connections of
people to nature are the core themes of his art. After he moved to
the mountains he wrote "I am now working passionately in order to
wrest the secret of Nature's spirit from her. Nature utters the
eternal word to the artist: love, love; and the earth sings life in
spring, and the soul of things reawakens."
His 1896 painting Love at the
Springs of Life (Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Milan) reflects
Segantini's philosophical approach to his art. Set in the high
mountain landscape near his home, it pictures an angel with large
wings spread over a small waterfall flowing from some rocks. In the
distance two lovers, clothed in white flowing robes, walk along a
path coming toward the spring. Around them are flowers that would
have been seen by viewers at the time as symbols of love and life.
Art historian Robert Rosenblum
described Segantini as transforming "the earthbound into the
spiritual", and the artist himself referred to his work as
"naturalist Symbolism." He said "I've got God inside me. I don't
need to go to church."
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia