Hello everyone! Today I would like to talk to you about a subject very close to my heart—a group of Italian artists who painted in the nineteenth century. They are called “the Macchiaioli.”
When I was an art student in Florence I went to the Pitti Palace where the museum of modern art is located. It was there where I saw the Macchiaioli artwork for the first time. From the very beginning, I was struck by the style of their art which closely resembled the French Impressionists. I wondered who these Italian artists were and why I hadn’t heard of them until then.
Have you ever seen paintings of the Macchiaioli?
Maybe yes, maybe no?
Well, stay tuned to find out a little more about these artists.
As I already mentioned, the Macchiaioli who closely resembled the French Impressionists never received the same international acclaim. Let’s take a look at the painters Giovanni Fattori and Claude Monet and compare the two 19th century artistic movements and discover how the invention of paint in tubes change the course of art history.
The Macchiaioli were a group of Italian painters who preceded the Impressionists by ten years. The two artistic currents are often compared and considered similar. But the Impressionists are well known all over the world, while the Macchiaioli are known much less. Furthermore, sometimes when the two groups of artists are reviewed together, the work of the Macchiaioli is neglected and considered “the failed impressionism in Italy.”
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Macchiaioli were not even mentioned by well-known art historians in the main art history books.
But is it really a fair assessment?
What are the reasons why the Macchiaioli
were neglected and almost forgotten?
To investigate these questions, I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two artistic currents to see where the Macchiaioli and the Impressionists are similar and where they differ. For discussion purposes, I chose paintings by Giovanni Fattori, the leader of the Macchiaioli group, and some by Claude Monet considered the “father” of Impressionism.
Keep in mind, that Fattori was born in 1825 and he was fifteen years older than Monet. The artistic movement of the Macchiaioli began around 1848 and impressionism began in 1866.
Let’s start with a curious coincidence.
Both the Macchiaioli and the Impressionists derived their names from pejorative comments made about them in the press. In the case of the Italians, the group was named “Macchiaioli” as an insult by a critical journalist who wrote it in the Gazzetta del Popolo on November 3, 1862.
The term meant that their work was unfinished as artists were believed to randomly stain the paint on their canvases.
In the case of the French, they got the nickname “impressionists” from a contemptuous journalist who declared that Monet’s painting entitled “Impressions, Alba” was “unfinished” and compared it negatively to wallpaper.
Let’s now take a quick look at how Italian artists and French artists worked and the techniques they used to make their paintings.
The Macchiaioli mainly painted the Tuscan countryside and scenes that celebrated the daily life of the peasants and their simple and normal activities. They are best known for the small, quick sketches of paint they made outdoors. This type of painting is now called plein-air painting.
Giovanni Fattori and his companions believed that the only way to create an authentic scene was to go out into the fields and woods to study the natural world.
Fattori wrote about himself: “I am such a scrupulous observer of nature, that I have always studied since I was young, and I have always carried with me a small pocket notebook where I can take notes, walk and observe everything that struck me.”
Being fascinated by the natural world in which the Macchiaioli moved, they certainly had a special interest in natural light. For them, it was very important to record the intense chiaroscuro that was constantly changing during the day as the sun traveled across the sky. To quickly document these changes, the artists developed a painting technique of quickly dabbing his canvases with rough strokes of paint.
Monet and the French Impressionists were also convinced that the only way to paint
was to work outdoors.
They argued that only in the fields, by the sea, or in the gardens would it be possible to capture the light that passed quickly and observe nature well.
Monet once said, “The wealth I get comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.”
Like the Macchiaioli, the Impressionists also developed a rough technique of applying paint to quickly capture the essence of the subject rather than every little detail. The goal was to record the light and the impression of an object, and it didn’t matter if the brush strokes were visible. The colors were applied side by side with the minimum possible mixing, instead, the eyes of those looking at the image mixed the colors.
The Macchiaioli and the Impressionists were interested in the same techniques and subjects to be painted.
Inspired by nature and new ways of making art, it goes without saying that both groups, both the Macchiaioli and the Impressionists, wanted to distance themselves from the art academies that dictated how artists should paint. They did not trust schools that forced artists to follow a predetermined “rule-based” program preached by the painting academies.
Hence, they moved away from classical art academies and went on to find their own path. The reaction of the schools and the public was not favorable and they were marginalized. But they didn’t care. They were fed up with a painting style that was related to intellectual ideas and wanted to break away from the themes found in allegories and classical stories and instead paint simple ordinary scenes with real people.
The Macchiaioli and the Impressionists seem to share a very similar vision of art, but there are differences that distinguish them.
Let’s take a look at the equipment and working
methods that the Macchiaioli and the Impressionists used to carry out their work.
To paint quick sketches of the vast horizons, the Macchiaioli initially preferred to paint on small elongated panels. They soon discovered that the easily portable cigar box lids were the perfect size to start their first drafts.
But, due to the limitations of their freshly hand-prepared paints and to prevent the precious colors from drying out, they had to go back to their studios to complete their paintings.
The Impressionists on the other hand benefited from new innovations in paints that could be bought in tubes. This freed them from the traditional manual grinding of pigments. Because the paints in the tubes didn’t dry very fast, the artists were able to paint outdoors for longer periods.
Listen up! This is a very important development!
Until that moment, oil paints and the way they were prepared had remained unchanged since the Renaissance. Because oil paints took a long time to produce and dried quickly, artists only prepared a few colors that they worked with during a painting session.
But with the revolutionary paint tubes and new colors invented by industrial chemists in the 19th century in France—such as chrome yellow and emerald green—the Impressionists had a whole rainbow of new colors that they could play with for hours on end. Due to these advances in painting technology, the Impressionists became a little bolder with their color choices.
By exploring the use of pure colors, they came to the point of completely removing black from palettes. As a result, their paintings were atmospheric and the shapes were not outlined by hard lines.
In addition, their paintings retained the spontaneity of outdoor painting and were embellished with the new bright colors available again.
The Macchiaioli, on the other hand, after having finished the first sketch from nature, were forced to return to their studios to replenish the palettes to finish the paintings. Because of this, their paintings may have lost the freshness that artists sought outdoors. And they never thought about totally removing black paint from their color schemes. As a result, the overall tone of their paintings is dark and heavy and the images have dark outlines.
Other differences between the two movements include the social and political views of the members of each movement which fundamentally influenced the tone
and sentiment of their art.
The French Impressionists came from a society that was bourgeois and industrialized and for them, it was easy to accept social changes. Their paintings tended to depict lighter scenes of urban progress and entertainment in the city and in the countryside.
The members of the Macchiaioli, on the other hand, held on to the principles of the Risorgimento, that is, strong opinions on the union of the country, national pride, the celebration of peasant culture, and the appreciation of traditional values. Their political beliefs colored their attitudes and the paintings reflected that.
Also, instead of being raised by upper-middle-class families, they came from a hardworking and poor peasant class. Therefore, the images painted by the Italians did not share the cheerfulness of humor, or the joie de vivre conveyed in the art of the French Impressionists.
Both the Macchiaioli and the Impressionists shook the art scene in the nineteenth century, so why did one movement become famous and well known throughout the world and not the other?
The reason is mainly due to the fact that the art of Macchiaioli never reached the rich American market and therefore a wider audience. Instead, most of their work was held privately and not put on display.
Also, after World War II, due to Mussolini’s strong Italian nationalism that enveloped the country for years—a similar principle with which the Macchiaioli identified themselves—their art was rejected by the nation.
Finally, with pre-fabricated paints in tubes, easy to buy, the Impressionists had an extraordinary advantage that did not exist for the Macchiaioli.
Indeed, Pierre-Auguste Renoir said: “Without the colors in the tubes, there would have been no Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, and Impressionism.
However, the Macchiaioli left their mark‚
or their” stain “on the history of art.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Macchiaioli style seemed modern to an Italian audience compared to the traditional movements that Italians had seen previously. The Macchiaioli who embraced Plein-air painting shocked the Italian pictorial scene by developing the “stain” technique. This way of painting, which rejected traditional academic painting techniques, allowed them to capture the natural light and immediacy of the moment.
So the Macchiaioli movement shouldn’t be overlooked, but it should be considered courageous and idealistic — an artistic current that has helped move Italian art in a new and more modern direction. But, in the end, the Macchiaioli were not as progressive or experimental as the French artists who arrived a few years later. Unlike the French, the Italians did not continue to push beyond the artistic limits.
Or maybe it was just a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment.
In conclusion…. who knows what would have changed if the Macchiaioli had
had prefabricated tube paints available!
So… guys…. that’s all for today! I hope I have inspired and intrigued you by the art world. If you are learning Italian or would like to hear this presentation delivered in the Italian language… Invite you to watch the Youtube video posted below!