Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Macchiaioli

The Macchiaioli - SIlvestro Lega
As fond as I am of the French Impressionists, I’m drawn even more to painters at the edges of their circle; painters who were influenced by their approach, like the so-called “American Impressionists”, or predecessors, like Gustav Courbet or Camille Corot and other members of the Barbizon School, who presaged and influenced the Impressionists in their break from the academic traditions.

A little know counterpart to the French artists of the Barbizon school was a group of Italian painters in Florence and surrounding Tuscany called the Macchiaioli (pronounced mah-key-ay-OH-li) who were active around the same time.

The middle of the 19th century was a time of revolution and political upheaval in many parts of Europe, and the artistic revolutions of time were part of the same social fabric. The artists who were most influential in forming the Macchiaioli, however, were directly involved in uprisings, joining other intellectuals and idealists who fought to wrest a united Italian state from the smaller independent areas that were often under the control of foreign powers.

Though that goal was eventually reached, the artists soon realized that their ideal democratic state was not to be a reality (politics is always politics, after all, and personal power trumps idealism), and turned their revolutionary zeal to freeing themselves from the restraints of academic formalism in their paintings.

They retreated to the countryside around Florence, feeling themselves inheritors of the Renaissance that bloomed there, and began to devote themselves to directly capturing the countryside in plein air paintings, using bold patches of color known as “macchia”, meaning splotch or spot, from which the name of their school is derived.

They often worked with a strong chiaroscuro, accented by dappled areas; isolating brighter colors into these spots and leading to effects that seem like sparkles of light.

In their use of broken color, brilliant sunlight, plein air painting and the direct observation of landscape, they were direct forerunners of the Impressionists, though the Macchiaioli received little notice and are only in recent years being rediscovered. Notable members of the circle included Giovanni Fattori, Silvestro Lega and Telemarco Signorini, along with Gusieppe Abbati, Vincenzo Cablanca and others.

I think they are wonderful painters and I’ll try to feature some of them individually on lines and colors in the future.

(Image above: Silvestro Lega, larger version here)

7 thoughts on “The Macchiaioli

  1. James Gurney

    Thanks for spotlighting these great painters, Charley. They’re also notable for their mastery of watercolor.

    I agree with you that the regional schools of plein-air painting deserve more attention. Some of my favorites are the Itinerants in Russia, the Australians like Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, and the Newlyn Schoolers, led by Stanhope Forbes. Hard to find books in the USA on these guys!

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks, James.

    I appreciate the leads to the other painters as well. I’m not familiar with the Australians.

    You’re right about the availability of books. I only found one title on Amazon that seems to be readily available, and there are no reviews by which to judge the number or quality of the reproductions: The Art of the Macchia and the Risorgimento: Representing Culture and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Italy by Albert Boime.

    If anyone is familiar with this volume (or other available titles on the Macchiaioli painters), please let me know.

    Other readers should also check out James Gurney’s blog Gurney Journey, in which he not only chronicles his travels in support of his new book, Dinotopia: Journey To Chandra (see my post), but also keeps up a lively investigation of all manner of art related topics, including his own experiences and process as both a studio and plein air painter. Here’s a recent step by step plein air painting demo that includes a great tip about premixing your colors.

  3. Kevin Turcotte

    There’s a really good book by Norma Broude called “The Macchiaioli: Italian Painters of the Nineteenth Century” that covers these artists — I’ve got it and it’s pretty thorough. Don’t know how available it is. These artists are great — I first heard about them from a Wayne Thiebaud lecture, when he mentioned how much they had influenced him.

  4. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks, Kevin. That’s good to know. Amazon lists some from third party suppliers for about $150.

    I found one on alibris for about the same.

    Other readers should check out Paintopolis, a collaborative painting blog that Kevin shares with three other artists. Most of the paintings look like they are painted alla prima and many appear to be painted en plein air.

  5. Charley Parker Post author

    I should mention that the compendium Impressionism, edited by Ingo F. Walther, has a good chapter (20 pages) on the Macchiaioli and related Italian painters.

    Unfortunately (inexcusably) out of print, but available used, this extensive and beautiful volume from Taschen is one of the few to offer a world-wide view of the broad influence of Impressionism, featuring a huge list of painters in its 700 beautifully reproduced pages. Originally printed in two volumes, it’s divided into halves, the first devoted to Impressioniam in France, the second to other countries. The text is a bit dry, but the book is a treat if you can pick one up.

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