19th Century European Paintings

The Dionysian Frenzy of Federico Zandomeneghi’s Earthly Paradise

By Harry Edmonds

I f you ask anybody to tell you what comes to mind when they think of Italian artist Federico Zandomeneghi they will probably bring up his depictions of women in private daily moments. They might think of his paintings of fashionably dressed ladies talking cosily in private conversation, or perhaps a picture of curious reading in the stillness of the afternoon. There are also the more intimately posed nudes, perhaps with a lady looking solemnly into the bathroom mirror or sitting at the dressing room table. It is with this in mind that anybody should be struck by a very different “Zandò”, as he became known, in our 12th December sale.

The Earthly Paradise, most likely painted in the closing years of the nineteenth century, depicts a dionysian frenzy of men and women merrily running around in the woods in a scene reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but with the element of added nudity. The scene shows lovers drinking, lying on the grass, playing games and in the background there is even a large group of men and women joined up together to dance in a circle, a view that reminds me of William Blake’s picture of Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, circa 1786.

Zandomeneghi is often referred to as the only true Italian Impressionist painter. His trip to Paris in 1874 led to a life-long association with the French Impressionists with whom he exhibited, particularly with Edgar Degas. Despite the inevitable influence of Degas and Renoir, the two artists he is most often compared to, his works were still very specific to him and his Italian heritage. It is with this in mind that I almost think Zandò, like any artist, is going through his own moment of madness when painting The Earthly Paradise. He is almost rebelling against the refined class of the Café de Nouvelle-Athènes in Paris that he represented for so long, in a bid to escape back to the tumultuous days of his childhood in Italy. Despite the lively scene, the colours are a lot more simplistic for this period of his late oeuvre. Save for the top right hand corner of the work depicting the field outside of the wood, gone are the bright reds, buttery yellows and vibrant blues and instead we have the very natural green of the grass and creamy flesh tones of the nude figures. Therefore, Zandò is refreshingly returning to his earlier days as an artist.

William Blake, Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, circa 1786. Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel, 1910.
William Blake, Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, circa 1786. Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel, 1910.

Certainly it’s hard to trace a moment of Zandò’s life that may have directly inspired this painting but in 1860, at the young age of 19, he did join Giuseppe Garibaldi in his Expedition of the Thousand. The gathering included a motley band of local rebels all with differing military experience and all with their own personal grievances but ultimately united in their quest to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. You get a similar feeling of madness when you look at The Earthly Paradise. Everybody has a different aim but they are all fundamentally at ease with one another’s company in the secluded setting.

It is often said that a difficult childhood is a great gift for somebody who wants to be a writer. Whilst that was not the case for Zandomeneghi we should certainly not underestimate the importance of finding time to escape from the conventional norms of our day to day lives, to our very own Earthly Paradise.

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