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November 20, 2007

Italy's Dabbers

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Once I started this gig as a full-time Blowhard I realized that the art history class I took eons ago was a flimsy basis for writing even halfway solid articles about art. So for the last two years the majority of books I've read have been general art histories and volumes dealing with individual artists and artistic schools or movements.

For example, I'd never paid much attention to the Impressionists. That's because I thought that Monet, Pissarro and others using broken color and short, distinct brushstrokes produced paintings that seemed too "unfinished." To me that was Impressionism, a painting style I didn't (and still don't) particularly care for.

Now I've learned what I should have known better years ago: The Impressionists were a loose association of painters who at times exhibited with one another, yet didn't share a common style. Yes, I knew Manet was an Impressionist and didn't paint like Monet -- but the meaning of this fact didn't sink in as deeply as it should have. Nor did I really understand that Degas considered himself a traditional painter who did his work in a studio and not plein-air, as did most other Impressionists.

I have come to agree with the implication by some art historians that Impressionism (and Post-Impressionism, for that matter) is a term that is something of a roadblock to understanding the history of painting in the last third of the 19th century. It would be better to try not to use the word and instead focus on painting styles. For example, Manet, Degas and the early Caillebotte (along with a number of non-Impressionists) might form one group while Monet, Pissarro and the later Caillebotte (and others) could form another.

Which brings us to a near-contemporaneous group of Italian painters called I Macchiaioli.

There are explanations of the term to be found various places on the web. Wikipedia, for example, says that the term Macchiaioli originated in a hostile review in the 3 November Gazzetta del Popolo, though the artists themselves used the word macchie to describe what they were dealing with -- the effect of light and shade, according to the entry. Macchie and derivations can mean "spotted" or "speckled" as well as an alternative meaning of "outlaw." So the article cited above might have had a dual negative sense of "outlaw daubers." Some sources translate Macchiaioli as "spotters," but that doesn't convey much to me. Therefore I use the term "Dabbers" as I did in the title of this post. It strikes me as having a better artistic relationship than does "spotters" because it suggests a technique that some probably used. Both English words lack the light/shade meaning, which perhaps might be invoked by "dappled" -- which has little or no meaning in art. Apparently Macchiaioli is one of those untranslatable words we are more or less stuck with.

The core Macchiaioli were a group of art students and young artists in Florence in the mid-1850s dissatisfied with the Establishment art of their time. They collected at a coffee house near the art school to hash things out. As this book (p. 5) puts it,

Anno cruciale di questi eventi rinnovatori fu il 1856. In tale anno, a Firenze, i giovanni frequentatori del Caffè Michelangiolo in via Larga, punto di ritrovo degli artisti della vicina Accademia, avvertirono con maggior nettezza la necessità di confrontare il loro operato con ciò che andava accadento in ambito europeo, e soprattutto con quanto di più aggiornato si faceva in quel momento in Francia.

One of these days I should do the research and write a post on European art in the period . That's because I'm not sure that the French were all that much "in advance" of artists elsewhere in Europe in the drift away from making highly "finished" academic-style paintings until Monet (and perhaps others) began to explore the use of discrete brush strokes of pure color, based on color theories that emerged around 1840. Moreover, some writers consider the Macchiaioli Impressionists who pre-dated the actual Impressionists.

For now, let's take a look at some paintings by Macchiaioli. Heaven knows these artists escaped the grand Paris-centric art history narratives many of us experienced in college and later, and remain little-known.


Giovanni Fattori - Diego Martelli a Castiglioncello - 1867

Giovanni Fattori - Il reposo - c. 1887
Fattori was one of the stronger personalities at the Michelangiolo and later was militarily active in the Risorgimento (unification). This is why many of his paintings deal with military scenes -- that have a sketchier quality then the two paintings shown above. For more on Fattori, click here

Giuseppe De Nittis - Signora col cane - 1878
De Nittis began his training in Naples and didn't come in contact with Macchiaioli until he was 20 and the movement was ten years beyond the time noted in the above quotation. The next year he went to Paris. The two paintings above seem to be Paris-related, and I find it puzzling that he is considered a Machiaiolo at all. Here is more about De Nettis.

Silvestro Lega - Un dopo pranzo - 1868

Silvestro Lega - Ritratto di Eleonora Tommasi - c. 1884

Silvestro Lega - La fienaiola - c. 1890
Lega ) evolved into the Macchiaioli movement around 1860. The first of his pictures above is pretty tightly-done and I'd say it's main Macchiaioli connection is its genre setting (the title might be translated as "After Lunch"). The other, later, paintings have freer brush work. His Wikipedia entry is here.

Raffaello Sernesi - Ladruncoli di fichi - c. 1861
Sernesi ) evolved rapidly during his short career from the influence of classical Italian art to paintings such as this one. At first glance, the painting seems typical of what was produced, say, : free brush work; bright colors; plein-air setting; genre scene. Now look at its date. This is why some observers consider Macchiaioli Impressionists before the Impressionists.

Telemaco Signorini - Processione a Settignano - 1860

Telemaco Signorini - Il ponte sull'Affrico a Piagentina - c. 1864
Signorini ) was Florence-born and trained and spent many hours in the Michelangiolo. One book I linked to above suggests that he had Macchiaioli phases at the beginning and end of his career but was influenced by various schools of French artists during his stays in Paris. Both paintings shown above were done in the early 1860s and the one immediately above might be cited as Impressionist-looking. For more, click here.

Giovanni Boldini -- early in his career anyway -- has been grouped with Il Macchiaioli. I wrote about him here. I mention Boldini and other Italian painters of the period in this post.

From what I've found thus far, there is not much Macchiaioli information in English. Excepts from one book are in Google Books, here. Along with other things, it has yet another take on the meaning of the term Macchiaioli.



UPDATE: Seems that one of us Blowhards spotted an apparent problem in the HTML stuff we have to use to control the appearance of the part of the page where you read the text, view stuff, etc. Once he started to fix it, everything started to unravel. Just looking at the code, things look normal, so it's possible that the problem is at the server end. [Bad server! Naughty, naughty. Bad Server!] I'm in Las Vegas and the "originals" of the illustrations are on my desktop computer in Seattle so I can't attempt re-sending them; when I get home I'll give it a try. Meanwhile, use your imagination.

posted by Donald at November 20, 2007


Donald, I love your posts on Art. For a long-time, I considered myself to be someone who was not that interested in Art and I still consider myself someone who does not have an "eye".

However, I have found that certian paintings really grab me. Especially those that have some sort of Urban or Village setting. Much like Michael, I am a sucker for Urbanism.

And these were great additions. I will be reading more about these painters for a while.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on November 20, 2007 10:45 AM


Impressionism is a bit more than just broken color. If you know a bit about painting, it was also about substituting color temperature relationships for value (light/dark)relationships to keep their paintings more colorful overall.

You can see a bit of this in Signorini.

Another thing about the artists of this period generally is that they were struggling against the tide of the current commercial fine art market. Painting contemporary life, rather than some sort of idealized rural "paradise", or classical Roman and Greek themes, was very important to these guys. The wealthy never really want pictures of the real world. They want nice portraits of themselves and their kids, and decorative, non-controversial work on their walls. These guys and the Impressionists wanted to paint everyday themes, paint in plein air, and to experiment with color. These forays were not supported by the commercial fine art world of the day, thus the founding of independent societies of artists.

Posted by: BTM on November 20, 2007 11:22 AM

BTM, I think you're semi-mistaken. The very aristocratic and the very primitive like pure decoration for their walls (i.e. they are the most affected by purely hedonistic/aesthetic considerations).

The merely rich - middle-class but not aristocratic - always want painting to have some kind of morally uplifting theme: vice over virtue; hard work over birth; family values (in fact, the whole spectrum of the modern left to right axis of virtues in the US political system - sorry for the mixed metaphor). Hence the pre-Raphaelites, the Symbolists, and a host of 19th-century story-telling painters. The rich middle classes were not sufficiently confident to admire mere decoration, which seemed frivolous to them. Everything had to have a message.

Posted by: alias clio on November 20, 2007 1:15 PM

Man, that's some damn fine beautiful art. I'd like to see it in person.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on November 20, 2007 2:19 PM

With the exception of Lega's Un Dopo Pranzo these paintings all suffer a lack -- they lack boldness, they are timid.
It's no accident, and more than the francocentric thrust of art history, that these Italian impressionists never made it to center stage.
Go look at the Monets and Pissaros in the Met or the Art Institute; you'll be stunned by their radical conception and daring execution.
This crew, for whatever reason, or for no reason, the luck of the draw maybe, didn't possess that genius.
Good craftsman but lacking that spark.

Posted by: ricpic on November 20, 2007 9:26 PM

Alias Clio,

Most collectors are concerned primarily about buying paintings that will hold or increase in value--which is great for established artists, but not for the up-and-comers.

Today's art market is quite different from the art market in the late 19th century. Artists were household names and big stars. They took painting very seriously as a cultural medium, thus the concerns you are talking about. Yet still, many artists of the time chafed against these expectations, and just wanted to explore the phenomena of color and the depiction of the natural world, including their immediate surroundings. Guys just wate to have fun--you know, art for art's sake.

Impressionism is a great example of this--where are the moral themes? Nowhere. Just a celebration of everyday life and joy in the depiction of light and color. Think of it as the full gamut, of rounding the whole thing out with a bit of levity and joy. Then you have it.

I guarantee you that these young, hungry guys were thinking along those lines because I paint and I think along those lines all the time, and so do other painters (although today's realistic paintings show a lack of the former values/cultural concerns you mention, and are too saccharine and fluffy). We could probably use a swing to the middle on that issue. But then again, painting is a minor art today, and TV and movies are carrying the cultural load.

Good observation!


You like the innovators, don't you? I guess I'm content with less. Do you paint? I find the genre scenes, if they aren't too saccharine, pretty satisfying. I greatly admire these guys' ability.

Posted by: BTM on November 20, 2007 11:49 PM

"Most collectors are concerned primarily about buying paintings that will hold or increase in value--which is great for established artists, but not for the up-and-comers."

That makes little sense, economically.

Any given established artist has presumably reached a plateau in value -- that's why they're established.

It's only the up-and-comer who can provide very large returns on investment. Rarely, to be sure, but that's the nature of risk, as well.

I suppose this demonstrates why there are few people who have become wealthy solely through investment in art. On the other hand, investing in general is difficult, which is why so few of the Forbes 400 have gained admission to that group solely on the strength of their investments. (As Nicholas Taleb says, "Are you good, or are you lucky? How do you know?")

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on November 21, 2007 5:58 AM


Yes, I do paint, and it's a constant challenge not to give in to being careful, timid. That's not to say that boldness is enough. Gestural painting without anything behind it can be pretty empty. That said, in my opinion only almost out of control painting is painting with any real impact. Sober Degas? Press your nose up against his best work -- wild, daring juxtapositions. Don't ever accept what the cultured say about art. It's a desperate dare.

Posted by: ricpic on November 21, 2007 9:58 AM

Rick, so true. And put precisely. Thank you.

Posted by: Tat on November 21, 2007 11:57 AM


Not really. A lot of investors aren't looking for the home run, but a single, or better yet, a walk to first base.

There is the pump and dump in the art world, where a new artist is praised to the heavens and their work is bid up. The insiders buy early and sell into the hype, then the demand falls off and they take their profits. This happens a lot.

Posted by: BTM on November 21, 2007 2:44 PM

I admit that when I wrote my comment I was really thinking in the, er, historic present, and referring to the 19th century art market, rather than to today's. I suspect, though, that it would be possible to extrapolate what I said about the 19th century to today's art-buyers. Isn't the perpetual desire to shock that is the main purpose of today's art, along with politically correct messages confirming group-identity, a kind of moral purpose in itself? And does this not confirm what I said about middle-class (but rich) art patrons? I think that in a way it does.

I don't know that painting will remain a minor art forever. It is now, perhaps, but that may be because the direction that painters have taken since the early 1960s is so out of step with the tastes of the public.

BTW, I used to paint, rather badly, myself. I couldn't find the kind of training I wanted, and decided I wasn't good enough to pursue it further anyway, so I gave it up.

Posted by: alias clio on November 21, 2007 5:17 PM

I think the comment made that the Machiaiaoli works seem more timid than the French works of same and slightly later period may have alittle something to do with the more tradition-bound Italian Culture of the time; and yet these paintings have great merit. Somehow the way art history is taught is not very comprehensive, nor all inclusive; has not been and still is not, although with the intense spread of information made possible by the internet, contemporary works made outside the main Art centres are becoming more available to those who want to spend time digging. I agree with your statement about Degas - now there was a painter fully trained in tradition, yet amazingly able to take risks with painting, with some remarkable results. G

Posted by: G Morrison on November 22, 2007 5:49 PM

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