Lot 148
  • 148

Pietro Magni

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Description

Pietro Magni
Italian, 1816-1877
la leggitrice (the reading girl)
signed: P. Magni Milano 1861, the marble base inscribed The Reading Girl by Magni from the Exhibition 1862
white marble, on a mottled green marble base (2)
Figure: 122cm., 48in.
Base: 51.5cm., 20Din.
Provenance: The Italian Ministry of Public Information
London Stereoscopic Company, acquired in 1862
probably acquired by Anne Elizabeth Croft, Fanhams Hall, Ware
thence by descent to Anne, Lady Brocket
The National Westminster Bank, Fanhams Hall and subsequently Heythrop Park
Literature: London International Exhibition, 1862, Official Catalogue of the Fine Art Department (corrected), London 1862, p.260; J.B. Waring, Masterpieces of Industrial Art and Sculpture at the International Exhibition (3 vols.), London 1863, vol.3, pl.253; The Art Journal, 1862, p.214 and 1864, p.56; The Builder, 1862, p.165; Dublin International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, 1865: Official Catalogue (3rd edition), Dublin 1865, pp.100-116; Caramel & Pirovano vol.2, p.343; de Micheli pp.210-211; Accame p.84
This highly important marble was shown at the London International Exhibition of 1862 where it enjoyed wide critical and popular success. Now regarded as one of the definitive works of Italian verismo sculpture, it set a fashion in late nineteenth-century England for 'genre' subjects in sculpture and was much reproduced in engravings, photographs and parian models.
Born in Milan, Pietro Magni studied at the Brera Academy under Pompeo Marchese and afterwards worked as a studio assistant to Abbondio Sangiorgio. An early adherent of Mazzini's Giovine Italia movement, he fought in 1848 in the insurrection of the Cinque Giornate and in the following year served with Garibaldi in Rome. He gained the Premio Canonica at the Brera Academy in 1850 and soon established himself as one of the leading figures of the 'Scuola di Milano'. Influenced by Lorenzo Bartolini's naturalism, Magni's works - such as the David (1850) and Socrates (1856) - were imbued with a physical and psychological realism and a high moral tone that captured the spirit of the Risorgimento. In 1859 he received the important public commission for the Monument to Leonardo Da Vinci in the Piazza della Scala, Milan (completed 1872).
The model of The Reading Girl was first exhibited at the Palazzo di Brera in 1856 and a marble version shown at the Florence Esposizione in 1861, at which time the Italian government ordered three replicas of the piece (Accame, p.84, note 5). In the following year it made its acclaimed appearance at the London International Exhibition (no. 2428), on loan, according to the Official Catalogue, from the Italian Ministry of Public Instruction. However the work was soon afterwards acquired by the London Stereoscopic Company, sole photographers to the International Exhibition. The Company had also purchased from the Exhibition Raffaelle Monti's The Sleep of Sorrow and the Dream of Joy (1861, V&A Museum), and these two 'sensation pieces' were exhibited at the Company's showrooms in Regent Street and the City. In 1865 The Reading Girl was lent by the Stereoscopic Company to the Dublin International Exhibition.
As a subject, The Reading Girl has precedents in seventeenth and eighteenth century art (for example Fragonard's A Young Girl Reading, 1776, National Gallery of Art, Washington), in Victorian genre painting and one or two works of sculpture, such as Patrick Macdowell's elegant, classicising A Reading Girl (RA 1837). Magni's version, however, is defiantly realistic - she sits sideways on a rush-seated chair, her working dress draped over its back which supports the book in which she is absorbed. She is barefooted and wears a nightdress (which has slipped off her shoulder - a convention of semi-nudity in genre sculpture of the time); the chair stands on bare flagstones and the rushes of the seat are broken underneath. The pathos of the work is concentrated in the tear that falls on to her left cheek, which, according to contemporary accounts, are provoked by lines from a patriotic poem by Niccolini which were to be found inscribed in the book. Though no traces of these lines are now visible, photographs taken at the time of the 1862 Exhibition show what would appear to be painted lettering on the open pages of the book. Political allusions are nevertheless evident in the portrait medallion of Garibaldi which the girl wears around her neck.
The Art Journal thought the work a 'signal victory for simple nature', both in its touching sentiment and homely realism. The Builder noted that 'the power of this small statue is such as to arrest and enchain the attention of every one coming in sight of it'. Critics saw it as an extension of the naturalism of Pre-Raphaelite painters and sculptors such as Thomas Woolner. Comparisons were also to be made with the theme of impoverished working girls frequently found in contemporary literature and painting. The Reading Girl, as Temple Bar magazine noted in 1865, stimulated a fashion in sculpture for genre, or 'back kitchen' subjects, to be seen in large numbers at the Royal Academy exhibitions in the 1860s and 70s and at the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865 (where Magni himself showed several other genre pieces).
The Reading Girl, together with Monti's The Sleep of Sorrow and the Dream of Joy were later acquired for Fanhams Hall, Ware, probably by Anne Elizabeth Croft, who rebuilt and refurbished the Hall in the early 1900s. After her death in 1912, her daughter Anne, Lady Brocket, lived at the Hall and in 1950 its contents were put on the market (Catalogue of the valuable contents of Fanhams Hall, Ware, Hertfordshire, The Residence of the late Anne, Lady Brocket, Sotheby's & Co., 2-5 October 1950). The Reading Girl, lot 1001 in the sale, remained at the premises after the Hall was purchased by The National Westminster Bank in December 1950. When the Bank sold Fanhams in 1971 The Reading Girl was transferred to the staff college at Heythrop Park.
The other principal marble version of the work is in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan (undated). Two recorded marble versions, one with slight variations, are in private collections in Italy.
We are grateful to Martin Greenwood for cataloguing this lot.