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MORBELLI, Angelo/ ARTISTS 1900 to present/ ART MAIN

Italian painter (b. 1853, Alessandria, d. 1919, Milan.)

Morbelli received his first lessons in drawing in Alessandria, and in 1867 he travelled on a local study grant to Milan, where he was based for the rest of his life. He enrolled at the Accademia di Brera and from 1867 to 1876 studied drawing and painting there under Raffaele Casnedi and Giuseppe Bertini, whose influence is seen in both the subject-matter and technique of his early works. These include perspectival views, anecdotal genre scenes and history paintings. In the Dying Goethe (1880; Alessandria, Pin. Civ.) the theatrical setting, enriched by a sophisticated execution and a well-modulated use of colour, derives from the teaching of Casnedi and Bertini, while the historic–romantic quality of this painting also recalls the style of Francesco Hayez. In the years that followed, Morbelli began to concentrate more on themes such as labour and the life of the poor, influenced perhaps by Realist painters of the 1880s such as Achille D’Orsi, Francesco Paolo Michetti and Teofilo Patini.

Morbelli - For Eighty Cents

For Eighty Cents! (Per ottanta centesimi!), 1895. Oil on canvas, 69 x 124.5 cm. Museo Francesco Borgogna, Vercelli.
Photo: Giacomo Gallarate

Rural Life

The bucolic and agrarian realms have long held appeal for artists. The Divisionists and Neo-Impressionists sustained this pictorial legacy, depicting the ebb and flow of rural life. Images of this kind are distinguished by the concentration on rustic subject matter and an idealization of rural existence, only sometimes tempered by sympathy for the harsh actualities of this life. Conceptions of the peasant ranged from monumental, heroic figures—much like those in the paintings of realist precursor Jean-François Millet (1814–1875)—to the anecdotal, whereby the subject was merely a vehicle for investigations into the chromatic effects of light upon color, to the compassionate depiction of backbreaking work.

There were tensions between aesthetic concerns and content. The painters' dedication to their subject was bound up in their engagement with pictorial issues. In these carefully constructed compositions, painstakingly rendered with a profusion of tiny dots or dashes, fields shimmer, light is radiant, and clothes are a vibrant array of colors. The harmony these paintings achieve often conveys a meditative stillness and a serenity that is at odds with the farmers' or shepherds' exhausting labor. Although the artists were sympathetic to the peasants' plight, suffering, and exploitation, they also were preoccupied with formals matters.

The contrast between the visual beauty of these paintings and the hardships being depicted elicited criticism from opposing camps. Angelo Morbelli's For Eighty Cents! (1895), showing bent-over mondine (the women who weeded the rice fields in notoriously awful conditions) in his native region of Piedmont, was alternately criticized for privileging aesthetics over commentary and documentation or for choosing to make a politicized statement and depicting "ugly" subject matter instead of painting appropriately appealing scenes. What these bilateral attacks demonstrated was that Morbelli, like many of his contemporaries, did not favor subject matter over painterly issues or vice versa. Instead, he married the two in an image that could alternately conjure sensorial pleasure and speak to social dilemmas.

Morbelli- Ricepickers Morbelli-Feast Day
 
Rice Pickers        Feast Day 
 

Social Problems 

Many Divisionists and Neo-Impressionists correlated their empirical, progressive painting style with enlightened, progressive politics and subscribed to leftist views. They were spurred to paint socially conscious work in a time when economic and political crises were rampant through much of Europe. Industrial development swelled metropolitan centers, and the shift away from agricultural concerns prompted mass migration from rural areas to the cities. Poor living conditions and low wages led to strikes and the rise of left-wing parties that took highly visible actions on behalf of the working class. On May 1, 1890, when the socialists initiated May Day as an international celebration of labor, workers took to the streets in demonstrations. Emilio Longoni captured this momentous occasion in his first Divisionist effort, the 1890–91 painting The Orator of the Strike, a snapshot of the illegal May Day demonstration in Milan's Piazza Fontana, which is on public view for the first time in almost forty years. Forbidden strikes such as this one were not the only form of insurgence, and extreme anarchists instigated terrorist acts. Public places were bombed and European leaders assassinated over the course of the 1890s, culminating in 1900 when—to avenge the rioting workers killed in the 1898 Bava Beccaris massacre by the Milanese authorities—Umberto I, the king of Italy, was murdered.

In this time of financial malaise, revolt, and radical political groups—in addition to Longoni—Maximilien Luce, Angelo Morbelli, Plinio Nomellini, Giuseppe Pellizza, Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, and Jan Toorop were committed to the philosophies of the left. Particularly through the first half of the 1890s, when such idealistic precepts were more pervasive, these painters denounced the abasement of the urban and rural poor and working class in their depictions of striking laborers, downtrodden workers, and the unemployed. By the latter part of the decade, after some artists had been arrested or otherwise intimidated, many rejected overt political imagery in favor of more utopian visions that transcended straightforward narrative representations to convey a complex elision of aesthetic objectives and ideological messages.

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Da Gaudenzio Ferrari ad Angelo Morbelli. Tesori dalle collezioni private novaresi. Catalogo della mostra (Novara, 22 dicembre 2007-3 febbraio 2008)