Born at Volpedo near Alessandria in 1868, Giuseppe Pellizza came from a family of small landowners and grape growers. After completing technical studies he moved to Milan in 1883 and enrolled in the Accademia di Brera where he studied painting and drawing with Giuseppe Puricelli and Pio Sanquirico. He made his public debut in 1885 at the annual Brera exhibition with a genre painting The Ambitious Little One (La piccola ambiziosa). In 1887 he spent about one year in Rome where he attended the Accademia di San Luca and the following year he went to the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence where he took lessons with Fattori and became friendly with Plinio Nomellini and Micheli. He completed his apprenticeship at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, where he perfected his technique in human figures thanks to the teachings of Cesare Tallone. In spite of a trip to Paris in 1889 to view the Universal Exposition, Pellizza remained anchored spontaneity and truth in the rendering of form along with a vein of poetry and humanity, the reasons for which his preferred artists of the time were Jules Bastien-Lepage and Millet for country realism. Pellizza’s early works, done mainly at Volpedo where he lived, were painted from life and outdoors, similar to Nomellini and yet also to the early Divisionist works by Segantini, Morbelli and Previati, like his Mommies (Mammine) of 1892. When he “settled” with the Divisionist technique, Pellizza would use it consistently not only in terms of method for its intensity and luminous vibration, but also to augment the effectiveness of the artwork and its social significance. This is confirmed by the two, nearly contemporaneous, paintings In the Hayloft (Sul fienile) (1893) and Disappointment (Speranze deluse) (1894) that marked the transition to this new style. His Florentine sojourn during the winter of 1893-1894 put him into close contact with classical and idealistic culture born from the close relationship between art and literature. It also allowed him to meet figures such as Domenico Tumiati (a young poet enamored of fourteenth and fifteenth century painters) who helped Pellizza direct his studies towards an ideal of art as harmony. This concept would lead to works such as Procession (1892-1894), Self Portrait (1898-1899) and Mirror of Life (Specchio della Vita) (1895-1898) where the harmony of the shapes and nature are studied in relation to a social and universal organicity. The series of the “Idylls” reveals symbolic suggestions similar to the works of Previati. However, his interest in social themes never diminished, rather it was encouraged by his correspondence with Morbelli. Thus, starting with the life sketches he did in the piazza of Volpedo in 1892, the Ambassadors of Hunger (Ambasciatori della Fame), and Fiumana (1896-1897) that remained unfinished, Pellizza was ready, in 1898, to begin a large social painting The Fourth Estate (Il Quarto Stato). This was his living testimony of his acceptance of the socialist ideal and his conviction that art could, indeed, play a role in the cultural and social development of the masses. His most famous painting, completed in 1901 will remain the symbol of the working class struggle. The expressive power of his classic, monumental shapes conveys the idea of a true “glorification” of a social class. Divisionism, applied to natural and human shapes would take the artist towards a scientific and philosophical analysis of the effects of art which, at the start of the new century, would develop into symbolic, elegiac works. The Rising Sun (1904) and Weary Limbs (Membra stanche) (1903-1907) came from universal considerations on life, death, and the value of mankind in Nature’s design. In 1907, his wife died in childbirth, and so did his newborn son. On 14 June Giuseppe Pellizza hanged himself in his studio in Volpedo.
Le ciliegie (Cherries)
Begun during the summer of 1888 and completed the following year, this canvas is an exercise, so to speak, based on the figure studies Pellizza was doing during this period of apprenticeship. In January 1888 he had enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence (where he studied nudes under Fattori). Then, from November 1888 to 1890 he attended Cesare Tallone’s lessons at the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo. Some of his drawings and sketches of heads bear great similarities to this painting which, however, reflects a synthetic modeling constructed using planes and shading rather than a drawing. The scene, is based on stylized, sketched forms and a diffuse, abstracting light (coming primarily from the blinding white of the sheet hanging in the sun), but above all from the perfect arrangement of colors revolving around the red of the cherries. The chromatic structure is particularly interesting: it goes from the bright blue of the girl’s skirt to the greens, ochres and reds of the background, rendered with a unitary, short brushstroke. The Tuscan influence of the Macchiaioli painters (mainly Lega) is evident in the formal solution as well as the emotional and psychological attitude of this everyday scene where the apparent naturalness of the figures is a key to character and a state of mind.
This painting, also known as Teresa, or The Bride (La Sposa) is a portrait of the seventeen year old Maria Teresa Bidone whom Pellizza decided to marry in February 1892. They had met in August 1890. After showing it at the first Triennale in Brera (1891), Pellizza always kept the painting and never exhibited it again. The pyramid-structure of the figure, that he would use in other contemporary portraits such as Il mediatore Giani, reveals his studies of Renaissance works. This is a verista portrait that also feels the influence of the “topos” of late nineteenth century female portraits aimed at revealing the spirituality of woman and her innocence as she is exposed to risk in a dangerous world, as emphasized by the title Thoughts. The figure, wearing an elegant peasant dress and bridal veil is seated enface with an absorbed, melancholy expression as she holds white daisies on her lap. The colors are light and delicate, based on a dominant combination of whites and blues and vibrating luminosity. It is the light that links the girl with the caesuras of the background and achieves virtuoso results in the transparency of the veil on her forehead. A predilection for reality would always characterize Pellizza’s painting. From this point on he would move towards Fattori and Tallone, but shortly, as he became closer to Divisionism he would acquire ideological and philosophical confidence in the name of socialist realism in harmony with nature.
Ritratto di una giovane donna (Portrait of a Young Woman )
This painting can be linked to the series of portraits he painted around 1891 such as Thoughts, Memory of Grief, Il mediatore Giani that are all full-face and lifelike. The figure who could be Palmina, one of Pellizza’s favorite models, had already been portrayed in The Cherries. Here she is extraordinarily “modern” because of his use of “tone-on-tone” colors in an elegant symphony of greens, enhanced by the reds and pinks of the flesh tones and blouse and the contrasts of gray and white. The expression is intense, but veiled with sadness and unease, sentimental elements that led the critics to entitle the painting Maternità incipiente (Early Pregnancy), to identify it with the canvas Pellizza showed in Turin in 1892 next to the portrait of Il mediatore Giani. The painting aroused the interest of Plinio Nomellini, the Macchiaiolo painter Pellizza had met in Florence. Yet it disconcerted the critics who found the figure “unattractive and with a… pathological air”, yet “notwithstanding a certain monotony of color it is one of the best paintings at the exhibition.” The particular chromatic sensitivity in this painting marks his first step towards the total lightening of his palette and gradual elimination of the earth tones that would characterize his later works in which, using pure colors, tone on tone Pellizza would try to achieve the utmost luminosity and naturalistic liveliness.
Both the artist himself and contemporary critical literature maintained that this was Pellizza’s first important painting and the point of arrival of his early and assiduous life studies on nature, work and man. Here is a meadow, sparkling in the sunlight, with young girls affectionately playing “mommy” to small children. It is structured as a pyramid that holds the individual elements of the composition together. To do this painting that presented not few technical difficulties, Pellizza had done countless life studies under different lights as we can see from the many en plein air sketches he did near his home during 1890-91. The palette is very light to create a real impression of the outdoors and of the vitality of the individual details: the different greens of the meadow enhanced by yellow and white, the shadows and reflections of the figures and trees, the luminous halos around the girls’ heads. The painting met with great success at the 1892 Exposition in Genoa and won the gold medal. Most highly praised were the luminous effects of the meadow which dominates the scene and brings it fully into the context of late nineteenth century European realism that aimed at constructing an exact, true composition that was studied insofar as light and setting were concerned. Together with the “Impressionistic” awareness of the value of light on things, the scene is constructed with the same firmness and finiteness as a Renaissance painting.
La processione (The Procession)
Preceded by a life sketch, a landscape study and an 1892 “draft”, the completed painting done during 1894 with its gold border is a measured and controlled composition. The dominant form shape is the triangle visible in the road that narrows towards the background, the figures that come to an apex in the cross and the bit of sky above them. The composition is simple and essential, the main figures are distanced to leave space in the foreground for the wide, empty road with the shadows of the trees as embroidery. With this subject, taken from life Pellizza aimed at finding a means of communicating ideals of spirituality and tranquil harmony between man and nature. He described the scene in his own words: “A country road, shaded by poplars, two long lines of the faithful led by girls dressed in white move forward singing hymns to the Creator.” Pellizza knew that the mystical tone of the painting was well suited to impressing those contemporary critics who were oriented towards spirituality and symbolism. Hailed at the 1894 exhibition in Venice, the painting was shown several times in Italy and abroad, and won the silver medal at Saint Louis in 1904. Even in the ‘twenties, years after the artist’s death, the spiritualistic aura of the painting led it to be considered his finest work.
Sul fienile (In the Hayloft )
This painting, that was preceded by a sketch, a study on paper and two “drafts” based on the real emotional impressions conveyed by the stark backlighting in a hayloft – was to have been entitled Christian Charity, and then Sad End and then definitively given its sober and objective title In the Hayloft. It is his first Divisionist painting in which Pellizza made a scientific attempt at dividing colors with small brushstrokes, thin lines and dots that create a sense of precision and rigor in the composition of the figures and the natural passage. The painting’s extraordinary effect comes from the intense contrast between the dark hayloft played out in shades of brown with touches of red, where a scene of human compassion is taking place, and the sunlit countryside with a prevalence of luminous colors (green, blue, yellow) that we see through the large rectangular opening. The subject, that reveals direct knowledge of the conditions of farm workers in Lombard-Piedmont Apennines, portrays an old seasonal farmhand dying in someone else’s hayloft, attended by compassionate young people and a priest who is administering the last rites. When the painting was first shown at the Triennale in Milan in 1894 it came close to winning, but did not because of the overly “bluish” tones that dominated the canvas. Pellizza later tried to correct this in that same year and then again in 1895. At the Triennale in Turin (1896) it was purchased by the Società Promotrice di Belle Arti and in 1901 it won the gold medal in Munich.
Speranze deluse (Disappointment)
This painting was exhibited at the Milan Triennale in 1894 and was immediately purchased by a Hungarian engineer and patron of the arts. It picks up on a painting from 1891-1892, Prato Cassanini, that portrayed the same theme without the Divisionist technique, in stylistic harmony with the Mommies. Here the division of colors is rigorously applied through the breakdown of tones with small brushstrokes, lines and dots of color that create the structure and luminous and proportional relationships among the figures and the setting. The effect is one of an illuminated green meadow with a figure that is the pivot of a triangle. The slightly sentimental subject is a shepherd girl who is sad because her beloved married another (whom we see in the procession in the background) and the sheep consoles her “disappointment.” Her grief is accentuated by the pose, slumped on the rake and her isolation in a perspective of perpendiculars where the vanishing point is blocked by the caesura of the wall that follows the wedding procession that closes the composition against an architectural background of houses. The critics were particularly pleased with the novelty of the Divisionist technique as it was accompanied by “reality” and a study of human sentiments. The works of Previati, and mainly Morbelli and Segantini, with whom Pellizza was close friends, helped him get through his early Divisionist experiments that were still intuitive and anti-constructive inspired by Plinio Nomellini, to reach the technical and theoretical turning point that we see in this painting.
Lo specchio della vita (The Mirror of Life)
Pellizza’s Florentine sojourn in the winter of 1893-1894 brought him into close contact with the cultural milieu that was engaged in a quest for beauty in the idealistic sense and for a rapport between art and literature. At the time, symbolism and the English Pre-Raphaelites such as Rossetti and Burne-Jones were avidly studied in Florence. Therefore, it was no coincidence that Pellizza conceived of a painting that clearly revealed a Pre-Raphaelite influence (especially of W. Holman Hunt) in the theme of portraying the destiny of man in a canvas dedicated to a natural scene. The first idea for the painting, in an oil sketch (1894) with a row of sheep and a shepherd boy was based on Dante and a line from the third canto of Purgatory “and what the first does the others also do”. The final painting was done in 1897 and shown at the National Exposition in Turin in 1898. It focuses on a line of sheep (without the human figure) to which Pellizza gives a symbolic, universal meaning of natural harmony reflected in the balance and organicity of society. “Mirror of life”, because progress is not straight; it is an equilibrium of opposing forces that he rendered in the painting as light and shadow, the symmetry of the straight bank where the sheep are walking and the wavy lines of the marsh in the foreground, the rhythmic advance of the animals and the absolute stasis of the countryside. The painting is most skillfully executed, the technique exalts the luminous vibrancy of the colors enhanced with the mock wooden frame painted onto the canvas.
Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate)
The lengthy preparation that preceded the final rendition of Pellizza’s great masterpiece was necessary for the intellectual and social mission the artist had embarked upon in portraying the workers’ march as the sure advance towards progress and an awareness of human dignity. Pellizza had been thinking of a social painting since at least 1891 when he made a sketch of a life scene entitled The Ambassadors of Hunger followed by others in 1892 and several studies on paper. Furthermore, his technical preparations were accompanied by the intellectual and philosophical application of the basic texts of socialism – Marx, Engels, Bebel – and a lively interest in the development of the popular movements. After he painted Fiumana from 1895 to 1897 Pellizza worked on a further composition of more universal scope that he began in 1898 and was initially entitled The Workers’ March. The decision to change the title to The Fourth Estate came in 1902 shortly before he sent the painting to the Quadriennale in Turin. It was triggered by definitions in the socialist press and a rereading of the History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaurès that spoke of the two components of the Third Estate, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In this large Divisionist canvas, enormous expressive power is unleashed by the solid arrangement of the monumental figures that recall the huge Renaissance frescoes (such as the School of Athens by Raphael) as well as the heroic luminosity of the host of workers in the foreground that emphasizes the desire to “glorify” an entire class that is moving towards a radiant future from the dark twilight of a tormented past.
Idillio primaverile (Springtime Idyll )
This painting, that Pellizza began in 1896 is the first of the series of five Idylls dedicated to the theme of love that he was to do between 1900 and 1903. As opposed to the others that he painted later and which were more closely related to portraying the loving relationship, this Idyll is based on classical and fifteenth century paintings, and deals with a romantic, idealistic theme with literary roots. The most immediate references is to the pastoral, bucolic idylls by Theocritus and the Virgil’s eclogues interpreted according to Pascoli, as a quest for the poetry hidden in the world of a pastoral childhood and nature which only the poet (or painter) can grasp in its authenticity. The tondo, based on Francesco Albani’s seventeenth century painting in the Pinacoteca di Brera accentuates the expressivity of the children’s ring-around-a-rosy as an almost symbolic form of the absolute and the eternal return of life. The scene is set in a meadow with trees close to Pellizza’s home, and even though it was probably inspired by life, it is carefully studied and intellectually constructed like a magic space from memory. The twisted tree recalls those in Segantini’s paintings and rises mightily to separate the foreground in shadows (with the two children) from the ring-around-a-rosy in the illuminated background. The painting is extremely vibrant with its miniscule luminous variations created by tiny brushstrokes.
Membra stanche (Weary Limbs)
This painting, that is also known as The Emigrant Family (Famiglia di emigranti) alludes to the hard lives of the seasonal workers who came down from the Apennines to work in the rice fields near Vercelli. Behind the figures we can recognize the Curone Valley with the luminous ribbon of the river that seems reflected in the clouds and the towering Alps that close the horizon. Conceived in 1894 but actually begun in 1903 this painting was never finished because of the artist’s sudden death by suicide in 1907. The four figures that are more or less sketched in, lacking descriptive details, are isolated in their thoughts and are synthesized in plastic groups forming an isosceles triangle with the man stretched on the ground as its base. The autumn sunset creates an extraordinary purplish-red hue with an almost Expressionistic intensity that augments the power of the scene. Even in this painting Pellizza conveys his own ideal of life summarized in the absolute harmony created by the bond between the intensity of human feeling and the grandiosity of the natural landscape. Man, with his social development, does not lose importance with respect to nature; on the contrary he is even greater because he becomes part of nature. Thus we can explain Pellizza’s interest that oscillated between man and nature and then between nature and man, culminating in his suicide that was the return to the Universal Being.
Il sole (The Sun)
The not merely technical, but also symbolic value of this extraordinary rising sun was immediately clear to the critics as revealed by the words of Primo Levi: “We must finally turn to Pellizza from Volpedo to feel illuminated by a Sun that truly seems to be that of the future.” Beyond the political connotations the painting was born from a meticulous study from life, in the successful attempt at grasping all the chromatic shades of nature in one of its most grandiose spectacles. Thus, we have to imagine the artist as he climbed the hills near his home in the middle of the night to reach Cenelli to await the dawn at his easel. For Pellizza landscape study had scientific and philosophical bases and had its roots in a personal, pantheistic concept of life, a sort of religion of nature in which man is a thing among things, part of the whole. The same attitude formed a bond with Segantini and Boccioni, but for Pellizza the declared references for this absolute value of the landscape came from the painters of the Barbizon school: Rousseau, Millet, Corot, Constable, Turner and Fontanesi – and it was the last who was his elected spiritual guide. There are also significant analogies with the works of Balla and Seurat. Pellizza reached the scientific will to convey light with the sum of its colors through the Divisionist techqniue that he had by now mastered. Long brushstrokes of white that form the round central image gradually proceed outwards with a tight sequence of rays that go from yellow to orange to purple to green creating a glow that dominates the entire landscape.