Capturing one of the artist’s favored subject matters, Portrait of a Girl ranks among some of the more charming paintings produced by Locatelli. Given that his pieces only sporadically appear to the public, Sotheby’s is immensely proud to present an absolutely fresh to the market masterwork from the artist’s opus during his halcyon days in Bali.
Rendered with verisimilitude, the present lot depicts a young girl delicately smoking a cigarette as she affixes the audience with an engaging, squinted gaze that immediately draws the viewer in. Her fresh-faced and youthful appearance belies the audience as her natural poise lends her an inherent dignity rarely seen in one so young, and, coupled with the blouse of her kebaya, her unaffected pose exudes a certain elegance. The cigarette clasped in between the ingénue’s nimble fingers forms a central focal point to the piece that immediately enraptures any viewer who approaches. Unlike Locatelli’s other Indonesian portraits, Portrait of a Girl features a close-up image of the girl rather than the full body of the sitter. To Locatelli, shortening this perceived distance between the audience and the subject magnified the power of the encounter.
Executed in a rich palette of browns and whites, the present work is a tender portrait and salient composition of a girl on the cusp of adolescence. The understated, earthy colors of the background dominate the picture and contrasts directly against the luminescent whites of the girl’s blouse. Blanketed with warm hues, the background is suggestive of the afterglow of the Balinese sun and conjures similarities to the natural pigments found in traditional Javanese paintings. However, the treatment of color, light and brushstroke harkens back to Locatelli’s academic training as a classical Italian artist, where he adopted a more rapid, modern style of painting. In many ways, the piece reflects the hallmarks of Locatelli’s painterly style and his ability to convey a realistic image via the short, thick brushstrokes associated with Impressionist art. The avoidance of hard, delineated edges combined with looser strokes of broken color provides the audience with an illusion of spontaneity; Locatelli captures the immediate essence of the subject, rather than her small details. Techniques of soft contouring and chiaroscuro help to emphasize light and dark, adding nuances of dimension to the work.
Romualdo Locatelli was an Italian painter born in 1905 in Bergamo, Northern Italy. He descended from a family that produced three generations of artisans; his father, Luigi Locatelli, was a fresco and decorative artist whose work had adorned numerous churches and palaces. As a result, from an early age, Locatelli was gifted with an artistic flair and became a figure of society whose name carried history and prestige. The artist was ubiquitously celebrated for his figurative works, particularly for his commissioned portraits of the upper echelon of Italy.
A rather mysterious artist belonging to a time when romanticized visions of the Orient were in vogue in European art circles, Locatelli spent a short but successful period of his life in Bali where he produced works that revealed his innate captivation of the Balinese rural existence. Accompanied by his wife Erminia, he was invited to travel to the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia), setting sail to Bandung, Batavia and Bali. To Locatelli and his contemporaries, the island was a cornucopia of earthly delights and as a result, he experienced an aesthetic rebirth. Although he had previously flourished as a society portraitist, the beautiful, Balinese vistas and young dancers captivated Locatelli and satisfied his yearning to produce an oeuvre from the whims of his own passions, free from the confines of formal portraiture.
Eventually, threatened by the currents of World War II, the couple was prompted to flee to Manila, where they lived until Locatelli’s disappearance in 1943. Unfortunately, approximately 75 of his warehoused paintings were obliterated during the demolition of Manila by the US army, rendering his works extremely rare today.
Romualdo Locatelli’s sublime works from his brief tenure in Bali are widely celebrated and have reached an iconic status among collectors. Portrait of a Young Girl is testimony to Locatelli’s legacy at the zenith of his artistic prowess and exemplifies his blend of Neo-Classicist and late Orientalist aesthetics. With a depth of artistry and sincerity, the girl in the painting exudes an undeniable charisma; one cannot deny the sense of youthful innocence and easy grace. As a striking picture that prompted the artist to immortalize the scene, Portrait of a Girl stands confidently as a pièce de résistance among Locatelli’s remaining oeuvre.