One of the most famous, and most collected, Symbolists of the end of the nineteenth century was Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899), who has something of a unique place in the history of painting. From childhood, he was stateless; he didn’t properly learn to read and write until his thirties; for much of his artistic career he was a Neo-Impressionist but mainly painted landscapes in front of the motif, and for the last decade of that he was Symbolist too. In this article and tomorrow’s, I will focus mainly on his Symbolism, in my series building a history of that movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Segantini (original surname Segatini) was born in Arco, Trentino, an area which is now in Italy but was then part of the Austrian Tyrol. He had a troubled if not tragic childhood, his mother dying when he was seven, followed by his father a year later. His care was entrusted to an older half-sister, who decided that they’d be better off in Milan, Italy. She had their Austrian citizenships revoked, but failed to apply for Italian citizenship, leaving them both stateless and unable to travel abroad for the rest of their lives.
After his arrest as a child vagrant, he was committed to a reformatory, where he learned the basic skills of a cobbler, but not to read or write. In 1873, he went to live with his half-brother, who ran a photography studio near Trento. He moved back to Milan in 1874, where he worked as an assistant to a decorative painter, and was later admitted to the Brera Academy there. He opened his studio in the city in 1880, and initially made his living mainly by painting still lifes.
In 1880, he moved up into the hills in Brianza, where he painted rustic landscapes and genre scenes in realist style.
In 1882, Segantini painted this first version of Ave Maria Crossing the Lake, which won a gold medal at the World’s Fair in Amsterdam the following year, and first established his reputation. In 1886, he painted a second and very similar version, this time using Divisionist technique.
This shows a shepherd, his wife and child crossing Lake Pusiano with their flock of sheep. In the distance is the church of San Giuseppe of Garbagnate Rota, backlit by the rising sun. This can be read as the boat representing the church, with its arching poles resembling its vaulted roof. The sheep are the flock of Christ, and the shepherd drawn from the parable of the good shepherd. The crossing might then be passage from the temporal world of earth to the spiritual world of heaven.
Other views painted during this period, such as his Horses at a Ford from 1882-83, are less open to interpretation in symbolic or allegorical terms.
Segantini’s alpine landscapes started to become grander, more widescreen and verging on the epic. Evening (Grazing, at the Bar) is a study he made in 1886 for the only painting which he completed during a stay in the village of Caglio, situated between two arms of Lake Como, in 1885-86. That is believed to have been the first such painting which he completed entirely in front of the motif, which was to become his practice henceforth.
Segantini explored further into the mountains, as a result of which in 1886 he and his family moved to the village of Savognin in the Oberhalbstein Alps in Grisons, Switzerland.
In 1887 he started to paint in Divisionist (Neo-Impressionist) style, which quickly achieved critical acclaim and popularity. His dealer also introduced him to Symbolism; such was his fame that in the Salon de XX in Brussels in 1890, a whole room was devoted to his paintings.
Segantini painted his first non-Divisionist version of this work in 1886, and it won praise when exhibited in London and Paris. In 1890, he painted this second version of Ploughing using Divisionist technique. Comparison with a photograph of the artist with the first version shows that this location was just to the south-east of the village of Savognin, although he made some adjustments to the view for aesthetic reasons.
The Punishment of Lust, from 1891, was Segantini’s first major Symbolist work, and is the antithesis of several paintings of good motherhood, starting from his first Ave Maria in 1882. Its literary basis is the poem Nirvana by his friend Luigi Illica, based on the visions of Alberico da Settefrati, a twelfth century Benedictine monk.
Two partially-clad young women wrapped in white shrouds hover in mid-air above the snow of a high Alpine valley. Two more women are floating further into the distance at the left. The artist wrote that these women are ‘wantons’ being held hostage in the space above a nirvana of ice and snow.
The landscape shown here is Lai Tigiel, high above Savognin. Its companion is The Bad Mothers, shown later.
High Noon in the Alps (1892) is one of a pair of paintings showing a shepherdess enjoying a brief break in her work, in the intense summer sunshine high in the mountains.
Rest in the Shade (1892) is a complement to the previous painting, here showing a young woman taking a short nap on the grass near a farm, where she has been working the ground in the vegetable patch.
The Bad Mothers from 1894 is the companion Symbolist painting to Segantini’s earlier The Punishment of Lust, shown earlier. It has the same literary basis, but here shows a mother whose hair has become caught in the twisted branches of a barren tree, contorting her body to mirror the tree’s form. Trying to suckle at her breast is her child, who she spurns. Two other mothers are in similar situations deeper into the painting, to the left. This tells of the long and arduous path of atonement for mothers who indulge in hedonism and deny their love to their children.
This could readily have been a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Beat Stutzer (2016) Giovanni Segantini, Scheidegger & Spiess. ISBN 978 3 85881 783 9.