-From the memoirs of the painter’s wife Erminia Locatelli (Erminia Locatelli Rogers, Romualdo Locatelli: The Ultimate Voyage of an Italian Artist in the Far East, Darga Fine Arts Editions, Indonesia, 1994, p. 42)
The Italian painter Romualdo Locatelli is widely celebrated for his sublime figurative works. Born in Bergamo to a family of artisans in 1905, he followed a short but successful tenure as a society portraitist in Italy with a move to the Dutch East Indies, accompanied by his wife Erminia. The couple spent several years in Bali up until the outbreak of World War II, upon which they relocated to Manila.
Portrait of a Young Girl is a supremely rare work to come to auction, and numbers among some of the loveliest paintings Locatelli produced during those halcyon days in Bali. Featuring one of his favourite models, a young girl named Tigah, the portrait depicts her holding a delicate white frangipani to her chest as she affixes the viewer with a steady, calm gaze. In the characteristic Balinese style, her sarong is knotted around her waist with its graceful folds draped artfully around her body. Tigah’s fresh-faced appearance belies her regal bearing, her solemn expression and natural poise lending her a quiet dignity rarely seen in one so young. Rendered in a rich palette of browns and golds, the present lot is a work of exceptional formal beauty as well as a tender portrait of youthful innocence on the cusp of adolescence.
Unlike his other Bali portraits such as The Little Sister and Portrait of a Nude (Fig. 1), the present painting does not depict the full body of the sitter, instead featuring a close-up, cropped image of Tigah. In shortening the perceived distance between the viewer and the subject, Locatelli enhances the power of the encounter in this portrait. Tigah’s soft yet alert gaze immediately draws in the viewer, while her unaffected pose exudes a feeling of casual elegance. Locatelli once rhapsodised about Tigah’s beauty, “Her expressive eyes, small nose, a full mouth, her hair so thick and glossy… she is like a Goddess." (Ibid., p. 43) Indeed, despite her youth, Tigah was a popular muse for artists--she also frequently modelled for Willem Gerard Hofker, another notable European painter who settled in Bali in the early 20th century.
In many ways, the present work reflects the most beautiful hallmarks of Locatelli’s painterly style. The artist utilises a subtle yet rich palette, and the use of earthy browns recalls the natural pigments found in traditional Javanese paintings. However, the overall treatment of colour and light in the painting harkens back to Locatelli’s classical Italian training at the Academia Carrara. Against the mellow glow of the backdrop, Locatelli skilfully renders Tigah using chiaroscuro to soften her features while simultaneously adding dimension to them; the painting’s velvety hues and smooth brushwork evoke a dream-like aura that enraptures any viewer who approaches. The ribbon of red in the sash in Tigah’s sarong underscores the warm colours of the painting and emphasises the slender circumference of her waist. In addition, the single frangipani she holds to her chest forms a focal point that contrasts against her body as well as the background, its luminescent white lending a dash of brilliant colour to the understated sepia tones of the artist’s palette. As a symbol of beauty and grace, the frangipani’s surprising resilience defines one of its unique traits—it is one of the few flowers able to continue blooming even after it has been plucked out from the soil. Its inclusion in this portrait is surely no coincidence, the frangipani’s delicate loveliness enhanced by the nymph-like beauty of its holder.
Portrait of a Young Girl exemplifies Locatelli’s alluring blend of Neo-Classicist and late Orientalist aesthetics. An artist belonging to a time when romanticised visions of the Orient were in vogue in European art circles, he moved to the Dutch East Indies in hopes of seeking inspiration there. The resulting works Locatelli produced reveal the fascination he and contemporaries like Adrien Le Mayeur had for the beauty they saw in Bali. For them, the island was a cornucopia of earthly delights, which they translated into their art with lush aesthetics that revel in sensuality of the highest degree. In the case of Portrait of a Young Girl, while it was unconventional to paint an adolescent girl half-nude in the context of European portraiture, Locatelli’s artistic skill and academic approach imbues the painting with a sense of spontaneity that reflects its subject’s natural charm.
Locatelli's images of pre-war Southeast Asia have reached an iconic status among collectors. They are highly rare in the market as the majority of his paintings were destroyed during the war. Despite the fact that only a few of Locatelli’s works remain in existence today, they continue to be highly coveted for their exquisite finesse.
Portrait of a Young Girl is testimony to Locatelli’s legacy as a work originating from his Bali period when he was at the zenith of his artistic prowess. The unassuming yet dignified elegance that characterises Tigah’s portrait gives her an undeniable charisma; one cannot help but admire her comportment and easy grace. With an impressive depth of artistry and remarkable beauty, this painting stands confidently as the Bali portrait par excellence among his oeuvre.
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