Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Works of Art from the Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Markus Mizne, 1966, no. 61, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (dated 1912)
London, National Portrait Gallery, 20th Century Portraits, 1978, no. 67, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984-1993 (on loan)
Daniela Fonti, Gino Severini: Catalogo ragionato, Milan, 1988, no. 104B, illustrated p. 126
The present work can be related to other paintings in which Severini incorporated the human figure into dynamic forms, such as Danseuse bleue from 1912 (fig. 3) and Geroglifico Dinamico del Bal Tabarin (fig. 5). These figurative compositions present a sensory explosion of movement, light and colour which he attempted to include in his portraiture. On 9th February 1913 Severini wrote to Marinetti about his forthcoming exhibition at the Galleria Giosi, in which he discussed the works to be shown, including the early version of the present work: ‘No. 2 – portrait of Mrs. Mayer-Sée [sic]. The lines and the planes, constituting an abstract and completely subjective rhythm, are the realization of an intuitive and objective effort. […] All these things are done, so to speak, “d’après nature” since I did not want to apply a subjective and thus unavoidably relative concept to things. This is the basis of my way of seeing, but each work is a different step toward ever-purer realities’ (quoted in Severini futurista: 1912-1917 (exhibition catalogue), Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, p. 145).
The Ritmo astratto di Madame M.S. and its accompanying versions reveal the artist’s open approach to abstraction and refusal to be bound by purely Futurist principles. Borrowing motifs from the Cubist idiom, such as the cigarette, book and the iconic Journal newspaper header, Severini acknowledges the Cubist work of his contemporaries such as Juan Gris (fig. 6). Cubist portraits by Picasso from the 1913-14 period share many qualities with Severini’s work (fig. 4), as the artist conceded in 1946: ‘I always liked subjects in motion, but this didn’t prevent me from painting subjects that didn’t move, such as portraits. Of these, the portrait of Madame M.S. is important as evidence of my interest in essentially plastic values. Did I turn in a Cubist or Futurist direction? I confess it was of no interest to me whatsoever. Like Picasso, I attributed no importance to these theories ending in “isms”’ (quoted in Daniella Fonti, op. cit., Milan, 1988, p. 125).
Little is known of the sitter for the present work, Mme Meyer-Sée, née Grace Mercia Sibley, who was the wife of Robert René Meyer-Sée, a critic and art dealer. Mme Meyer-Sée possessed an art collection of her own that was sold in Paris in December 1912, which mainly comprised British paintings of the 18th and early 19th century, and Barbara Pezzini suggests that the Severini portraits allude to the works in the Meyer-Sée’s collection: ‘Severini’s portrait of Mme Meyer-Sée, with the social attributes of her plumed hat, cigarette, lap dog and gold stock pin on her rich blouse, is a contemporary interpretation of the earlier society portraits in which […] the personal charm and status of the sitters are conveyed’ (B. Pezzini, ‘The 1912 Futurist exhibition at the Sackville Gallery, London: an avant-garde show within the old-master trade’, in The Burlington Magazine, no. 1324, vol. 155, July 2013, p. 475).
Robert René Meyer-Sée was proprietor of the Marlborough Gallery from 1913 onwards, but had previously founded the Sackville Gallery with Max Rothschild in 1908. Under their ownership the Sackville Gallery dealt exclusively in Old Masters and in particular English pastels, of which Meyer-Sée was a connoisseur. However, in March 1912 the Sackville Gallery hosted an exhibition of works by Severini, Boccioni, Carra and Russolo, which met with surprising success, as Meyer-Sée proudly acknowledged: ‘With regard to the Futurists, the good people of London have made a marvellous resolution. By way of disdain, they were to promote a conspiracy of silence around the noisy exhibitions at the Sackville Gallery. Nobody would talk about it, nobody would set foot in it, nobody would glance at it…. And the reception by the English public is not at all the one the public had predicted… There was a throng at the exhibition of the Futurists in London’ (R.R. Meyer-Sée in Gil Blas, 6th March 1912).
This first foray into the English art world encouraged Severini and his contemporaries, and he readily accepted Meyer-Sée’s invitation to exhibit the following year at his new gallery on Duke Street, St. James’s. In keeping with the verbose manner of the Futurists, Severini wrote an introduction to his work in the Marlborough catalogue, explaining: ‘Painting will no longer translate some spectacle (Anecdote) or the outward semblance of some person who has been given an expression either of gaity or sadness (Literature or Psychology), and will no longer limit itself to the simple pursuit of arabesques upon a plane (Matisse), or of mass (the Cubists), but by means of abstract forms will give the pictorial rhythm of an ideal world’ (G. Severini, G. Severini’s Exhibition (exhibition catalogue), Marlborough Gallery, London, 1913, p. 6).
Although pleased with the success of the exhibition, Severini was desperate to return to his studio in Paris. Writing to Marinetti from London on 19th April 1913, the artist complained: ‘I don’t know whether I told you, I am Sée’s guest, I am guzzling his food and sleeping in his house (the organisation of his house is immense, grand); but this state of affairs cannot go on and I have to cross the Channel as soon as possible’, furthermore he rather heartlessly added: ‘Watching the blonde Madame Sée grow old is a pleasure; she is becoming ugly and sick of men’ (quoted in Severini futurista: 1912-1917 (exhibition catalogue), Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, p. 150). This curious postscript might suggest that Severini had concerns other than purely artistic ones. As Barbara Pezzini writes: ‘Some circumstantial evidence suggests that perhaps his proximity to Mme Meyer-Sée contributed to Severini’s unrest. In early 1912 Severini had painted a Cubo-Futurist portrait of Meyer-Sée’s wife, elusively titled only as Abstract rhythm of Mrs. M.S. In his autobiography, Severini claimed that this work was not only a spatial study of the planes generated by the main compositional lines but also an interpretation of the psychological relationship between the painter and the sitter, whose identity he did not disclose. Severini was evidently attached to this painting, for it remained in his possession until his death and he produced several versions of it. Was Mme Meyer-Sée the beautiful blonde woman whom Severini met and ‘almost decided to fall in love with’ in early 1911 and who was planning to visit his studio to have her portrait painted?’ (B. Pezzini, ibid., pp. 474-475).
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