Gaetano Previati's Tender Portrayal of Star-Crossed Lovers

Gaetano Previati's Tender Portrayal of Star-Crossed Lovers

One of the highlights of the 19th Century European Paintings auction in London on 11 December is a touching depiction of Romeo and Juliet by Italian Divisionist Gaetano Previati.
One of the highlights of the 19th Century European Paintings auction in London on 11 December is a touching depiction of Romeo and Juliet by Italian Divisionist Gaetano Previati.

I talian artist Gaetano Previati is best known as an exponent of Divisionism, a late-19th-centruy artistic movement which opposed itself to academicism and laid the ground to Futurism. Inspired by new theories in optical science, the Divisionists made the depiction of light their focus. They argued that by juxtaposing two colours in long dashes rather than mixing them, one would enhance the luminosity of a painting. As each exponent of Divisionism developed their own variant on this technique, their works also varied considerably in subject matter. Some favoured figural subjects, with an emphasis on social issues, others favoured landscapes. Previati’s art, on the other hand, was from the very beginning imbued with deep spirituality and for that search of the ‘ideal’ that also partly defined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Gaetano Previati, The Kiss. Estimate £100,000–150,000.

Predating what is often considered Previati’s first truly Divisionist work of circa 1890-91, Maternitá (Novara, Banca Popolare di Novara collection), The Kiss depicts the ill-fated couple of Romeo and Juliet locked in a tender kiss, far from prying eyes.

The subject was not uncommon in 19th-century Italian paintings, perhaps Francesco Hayez’s The Kiss being the most iconic of all, becoming the symbol of Italian nationhood, victorious over internal conflict and foreign domination. Whilst Previati had little interest in current political commentary, his painting drew on historical, literary and artistic references of the time. Romeo’s kneeling position recalls Camille Claudel’s plaster L’abandon (Sakountala) of 1888, also known from later casts in bronze and marble which Previati might have known from illustrations of the time.

Camille Claudel, L'abandon (Sakountala), bronze, cast circa 1905.

The setting however, is reminiscent of Gabriel Dante Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca of 1867. Although this work was never exhibited in Italy, the composition relates to an earlier etching published in Rossetti’s book The Early Italian Poets of 1861 which Previati may well have known.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1867, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

One of the first in Italy to express interest in Pre-Raphaelite artists was Giavanni ‘Nino’ Costa (1826 – 1903), an artist who had fought under Giuseppe Garibaldi during the Risorgimento wars. Costa worked and lived in Rome for many years, promoting the study of early Rinascimento (Renaissance) as a moment in history that would inspire a renewed meaning in art, based on virtue and spirituality. Having been introduced to English art via his friend Frederick Leighton, it was just natural therefore for Costa to turn to his fellow English painters for inspiration.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, BT., A.R.A., R.W.S., St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes. Estimate £700,000–1,000,000. Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art, London, 10 December 2019.

By the end of the 19th century, Pre-Raphaelite art had been made available to a wider Italian audience. Lawrence Alma-Tadema exhibited in Rome in 1883, and in 1890 the artistic association In Arte Libertas, founded in Rome by Nino Costa and Giulio Aristide Sartorio, held its first exhibition with works by Pre-Raphaelite artists, including Rossetti. In 1895, the English section of the first Venice Biennale showcased numerous works by Alma-Tadema, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Millais and many more. Works of the likes of Burne-Jones’s St Barbara, St Dorothy and St Agnes were therefore the subject of exhibitions and of numerous articles on cultural newspapers of the time which were promoting the diffusion of knowledge of Pre-Raphaelite art in Italy. Previati was certainly not immune to this.

Gaetano Previati, Madonna dei gigli, 1893, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Milano ©Umberto Armiraglio.

The influence of Pre-Raphaelite art on the work of Gaetano Previati and on nineteenth century Italian artists has only recently been subject of research.

With no doubt it can be stated that Previati shared with his English counterparts the idea that art could capture a series of lost values and truths, and that those were to be sought in a combination of symbolist imagery and sacred iconography. As we look at The Kiss, we therefore cannot refrain from reading this work as more than a mere love scene, but rather as an allegory to be stripped of its ‘factuality’. Romeo and Juliet become the pretext for depicting the true meaning of pure love. Previati will further elaborate this concept into works verging on mysticism, searching for an ideal image which, despite its materiality, remains evanescent.

19th Century European Paintings

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