Isidro Nonell Barcelona 1873-1911
- Isidro Nonell
- signed and dated nonell. / 1906 u.r.; signed on the stretcher
- oil on canvas
R. Cano Collection, Mexico
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Nonell’s representation of the gypsy figure not only became a motif of singular importance to the painter and one that would come to dominate his oeuvre, but also an image of social deprivation that, above all other, defines the liberal generation of artists, writers and intellectuals that congregated at Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona to champion Catalonia’s Modernista movement.
Nonell’s interest in society’s outcasts derived in part from his friendship with Juli Vallitjana, a fellow member of the Colla del Safrá (a group of plein air painters whose number also included Joaquín Mir and Ricardo Canals). Vallitjana subsequently gave up painting and became an expert in gypsies and their language. Inspired by Vallitjana’s writings and familiar with the scathing satire of such artists as Daumier, Forain and Steinlen, vagabonds, beggars and destitute veterans of the Cuban war became Nonell’s favourite subjects.
His first public exhibition of such marginalised figures took the form of a set of drawings titled Cretins de Bohi that depicted goitrous idiots from Caldes de Bohi in the Pyrenees. Published in the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia in 1896, Nonell followed them two years later with the even more contentious series España después de la guerra that he exhibited at Els Quatre Gats and which described in vivid detail the human cost of war.
It was in Paris, however, that Nonell’s work received due critical appraisal. Travelling to Paris with Ricardo Canals in 1897, the two shared a studio high on the Butte de Montmartre, a venue that soon became the headquarters of the ‘bande catalan’. Nonell’s drawings were shown at both the Salon des Beaux-Arts and at the Barc de Boutteville, winning him recognition not enjoyed in his native Barcelona. Picasso had already been attracted to the gypsy theme (fig.1), and it was directly to Nonell’s studio that Picasso and Casagemas made their way on their arrival in Paris in 1900. In subsequent years Nonell’s works were shown virtually annually in the French capital.
In 1901 Nonell turned exclusively to painting in oil, gypsies becoming his favourite subject matter. Painted from life (fig.2), shown full-length, seated or crouching and enveloped in shawls, their faces in profile, these gitanas established Nonell as perhaps the finest painter of his generation working in Spain.
Painted in 1906 at the height of the artist’s development, the present work reflects the very distinctive character of Nonell’s work. The hatched brushstrokes in the face highlight the sobriety of the gypsy who is robed in darkness and silhouetted against an almost monochrome background. Through his painting, Nonell communicates the empathy that he felt for the gypsy figures. Removing them from their usual folkloric context, he imbued them with dignity, and elevated them to a universal interpretation of humanity, which heralded the art of the twentieth century.
Fig.1: Pablo Picasso, Lola in a Spanish Dress, 1899, oil on canvas, The Cleveland Museum of Art 252D05102
Fig. 2, A photograph of the artist with gypsies in his studio, 1908 (212D05102)