As a newborn baby Gemito was left on the steps of a Neapolitan foundling hospital. He was adopted by a poor artisan and his early years were very much like those of the street urchins he famously portrayed. He was apprenticed to a painter at the age of nine and quickly developed a precocious artistic talent. By the age of sixteen he was exhibiting at the prestigious Promotice di Napoli and his work was acquired by the city of Naples. Gemito travelled little, but he did visit Paris and exhibited his Neapolitan Fisherboy at the Salon of 1878.
Although Gemito had a formal artistic education – he enrolled at the Naples Academy of Fine Arts at the age of twelve – he was largely self-taught. His primary source of inspiration was the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. He steeped himself in the museum’s pre-eminent collection of classical sculpture and archaeological finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum. These revered works were copied, re-worked and re-imagined by the sculptor, who infused them with an impudent vitality drawn from contemporary life.
Gemito was obsessed by the facture of sculpture, paying close attention to the modelling, casting and chasing of his works. Inspired by the Renaissance master Benvenuto Cellini he set up his own foundry on the Via Mergellina. After a meteoric rise and an intense period of artistic activity Gemito had a mental crisis in the late 1880s and was committed to an asylum. He escaped and became a recluse living in a single room for a period of twenty years. During this time he produced not one sculptural work, confining himself solely to drawing. The sculptor emerged from this isolation around 1909 with a new direction. The soft modelling of the early period was replaced by a strong sense of line and detail.
Carlo Siviero described the Nettuno in 1953 as ‘Leaping from the waves, in the frenzy of the sea wind, quivering within the folds of a cloak which stretches out like a wing..’ and called it ‘the ultimate sculptural creation’ of Gemito’s art. The movement captured in the spiralling form certainly seems to defy the limitations of a static art. The modelling is characterised by a certain agitation, which enlivens the figure. The Nettuno recalls the Neapolitan boys of Gemito’s first period, such as the Acquaiolo, but transcends their insolent realism. The artist no longer shocks, but enchants.
A unique silver and silver-gilt version of the present model was sold in these rooms on 16 December 2015, lot 116.
P. Fogelman et al., Italian and Spanish Sculpture. Catalogue of the J. Paul Getty Museum Collection, Los Angeles, 2002, pp. 338-343, no. 43; K. McArthur and K. Ganz, Vincenzo Gemito (1852 – 1929). Drawing and Sculpture in Naples & Rome, exh. cat. Kate Ganz Gallery, 2000, p. 44. cat. 19; C. Siviero, Gemito, Naples, 1953, p. 89
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