Francesco Hayez, life and works of the great painter of Italian Romanticism

Francesco Hayez was the leading exponent of Romanticism in Italy. We discover his life, major works, and style.

Francesco Hayez (Venice, 1791 - Milan, 1882) is the greatest exponent in Italy of Romantic painting, living in the era of transition between neoclassical and Romantic culture, placing himself as the main Italian painter of the latter current. Not only that: with some of his highly symbolic works of high patriotic value, such as the famous Kiss, painted in three versions(read an in-depth study of this work here), Hayez is also a painter who symbolizes theUnification of Italy, considered in painting as Alessandro Manzoni is considered in literature. His truthful historical reconstructions, the sentimental accents of his romantic paintings, and the political sentiment of his paintings are elements comparable to those in Manzoni’s literary works. Francesco Hayez’s art, although for a long time still set on formal values of a neoclassical character, demonstrated a sensitivity new to Italy in dealing with subjects of a historical or political nature, such as the Sicilian Vespers, a painting inspired by a fact of Italian history, or The Refugees of Parga, which recounted instead a current event. His art was thus configured, as Giulio Carlo Argan wrote, as a combination of “medieval or Romance history subject matter” and “correctness of Ingresian drawing.”

Despite his birth in Venice (and despite the fact that many counted on him to restore the glorious tradition of Venetian painting: read here for an in-depth discussion on this subject), he spent almost his entire career in Milan, Md: in the Lombard city, he posed not only as a great artist of subjects with historical content, but also as a sublime portrait painter, so much so that writer Carlo Castellaneta went so far as to point out that it was precisely in the production of portraits that Hayez was at his best: “it is here,” Castellaneta wrote, “that he touches his summits, when Romantic discourse merges with realism, or rather with a kind of inner physiognomy that gives the model an unusual anatomy. If we are to believe in the fidelity of the paintings, while conceding to the author that he may have perhaps gracefully flawed a few, there is no doubt that the portraits possess a charm that is difficult to escape. They tell us of a vanished world, immobile in its class barriers, but in which the aristocracy had a not inconsiderable role toward art and culture. I wonder if a Count Ninni or a Belgioioso or a Countess Vitali of our day would be able to express such disturbing majesty, such self-awareness.”

He was an artist with a long career, through several epochs: he was a painter ofNapoleonic Italy, an artist capable of interpreting the demands of the Risorgimento (but at the same time also enjoying the esteem of the Austrian government, a fact that drew him numerous criticisms: he was not, after all, a revolutionary painter), appreciated by Mazzini who considered him “the head of the school of Historical Painting, which national thought claimed in Italy,” and was then a painter who lived in the early years of the Unification of Italy. And he was certainly one of the greatest Italian artists of the 19th century.

Francesco Hayez, Autoritratto con leone e una tigre in gabbia (1831; olio su tavola, 43 x 51 cm; Milano, Museo Poldi Pezzoli)
Francesco Hayez, Self-Portrait with Lion and a Caged Tiger (1831; oil on panel, 43 x 51 cm; Milan, Museo Poldi Pezzoli)

Biography of Francesco Hayez

Francesco Hayez was born in Venice on February 10, 1791, to Giovanni, a fisherman originally from Valenciennes in France, and Chiara Torcellan, from Murano. The family was very poor, which is why in 1797 little Francesco was entrusted to his uncle Giovanni Binasco, a wealthy art dealer from Genoa. We find the painter, very young, in the workshop of Francesco Maggiotto in 1798, while in 1803 he began attending the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice (in 1806 he was a student of Teodoro Matteini’s painting course. In 1809, Hayez won a scholarship that allowed him to spend a few years studying in Rome, and he moved to the capital of the Papal States the following year: here, he met Antonio Canova (Possano, 1757 - Rome, 1822). In 1812, with his Laocoon, he won the Grand Painting Prize of the Milan Academy, which he had attended at the suggestion of Canova and Count Leopoldo Cicognara, since 1808 president of the Venice Academy. In 1813 he won the title of best student of the year at the Venice Academy and opened his first studio in Rome. Later, in 1814, he moved to Naples where he worked for Joachim Murat (the following year he producedUlysses at the Court of Alcinous for him).

In 1817, Francesco Hayez married Vincenza Scaccia, and in 1820 he began to frequent Milan: he stayed in the Lombard city and met Alessandro Manzoni, with whom he would become good friends. In 1822 he obtained an adjunct professorship at the Brera Academy in Milan: he would move to the city permanently the following year. One of his major masterpieces, TheLast Kiss between Romeo and Juliet, dates from 1823. In 1831 he was appointed corresponding member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Naples, while five years later, in 1836, he stayed in Vienna, where he was received by Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, who introduced him to Emperor Ferdinand I. In 1840 he made another stay in Naples where he worked for the prince of Sant’Antimo (on the occasion of his second stay in 1844 he painted the portrait of the princess of Sant’Antimo). Back in Milan, in 1841 he executed one of his most famous works: the Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni.

The artist continued to reap numerous successes and to be one of the favorite artists of the wealthy Milanese patrons, but his name was also well known outside the borders of Lombardy-Veneto, so much so that in 1849 he received theOrder of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, a high honor awarded by the House of Savoy. In 1850 he was appointed professor of painting at the Brera Academy, and in 1852 he returned to Vienna, where he delivered his portrait to the emperor, receiving from the latter the honor of the Iron Crown. The following year he returned to his hometown and then to Piedmont. After executing other important works, in 1859 he painted the first version of the famous Kiss. In 1860 he became a full professor at theAcademy of Fine Arts in Bologna, and in the same year he took over the direction of the Brera Academy, becoming its president: the post was given to him by Massimo d’Azeglio and lasted until the following year. In 1863 he donated one of his self-portraits to the Uffizi Gallery. In 1869 his wife Vincenza died, and Francesco Hayez entered a phase of decline shortly thereafter: in the 1870s his artistic production waned. In 1875 he made another trip to Naples and before returning to Milan he lingered in Rome, Pisa and Genoa. His last years passed without any major works, and the artist died in Milan on December 21, 1882.

Francesco Hayez, Il Bacio (1859; olio su tela, 112 x 88 cm; Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera)
Francesco Hayez, The Kiss (1859; oil on canvas, 112 x 88 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera)

Francesco Hayez, L’ultimo bacio dato da Giulietta a Romeo (1823; olio su tela, 291 x 201,8 cm; Tremezzina, Villa Carlotta, Museo e Giardino Botanico)
Francesco Hayez, The Last Kiss Given by Juliet to Romeo (1823; oil on canvas, 291 x 201.8 cm; Tremezzina, Villa Carlotta, Botanical Museum and Garden)

Francesco Hayez, Pietro Rossi a Pontremoli (1818-1820; olio su tela; Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera)
Francesco Hayez, Pietro Rossi at Pontremoli (1818-1820; oil on canvas; Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera)

The style and major works of Francesco Hayez

Hayez’s early paintings are works of strict neoclassical observance. Among the youthful paintings, it is necessary to mention for example the Laocoon, with which the artist managed to win the Grand Prize for Painting organized by the Brera Academy in a tie with Antonio De Antoni, a pupil of Andrea Appiani (Milan, 1754 - Milan, 1817), while Hayez was supported by Canova and also by Leopoldo Cicognara. It was precisely Canova and Cicognara who had pushed Hayez to participate in the competition (it is Hayez who recounts this in his memoirs). The Laocoon proposes a theme much frequented in classical art: the protagonist of the tale is the Trojan hero who, after the arrival of the Trojan Horse in the city, admonished his fellow citizens urging them not to trust the horse, uttering the famous phrase “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” that is, “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts,” and to punish him the gods who sided with the Greeks sent two huge snakes that came out of the sea and clutched Laocoon and his sons to death: the painting shows the two reptiles clutching Laocoon and his sons beside him (one of whom is already lying lifeless on the ground). Hayez resolves the theme with a very measured composition, with typically neoclassical composed drama. Another important early painting, from 1814, is the Rinaldo e Armida(learn more about love in Hayez’s work): this is Hayez’s first work in which a female n ude appears (female nudes would be very recurrent in his art), and in this case it is an obviously Canovian-derived nude, very delicate: it is still a measured and balanced composition, with the two lovers hardly inspiring eroticism despite the fact that the theme could lead the painter to create a representation with a great erotic charge (of which he would later know how to demonstrate in certain of his drawings: drawing, moreover, was a medium much used by Hayez, and in our magazine it is possible to read an in-depth study on this theme).

Hayez’s Romantic turn occurred with an 1820 painting, Pietro Rossi at Pontremoli: the painting’s protagonist, Pietro Rossi, was a condottiere of Parma origin who in the fourteenth century tried to defend Pontremoli from the siege of the Scaligeri who were attempting to expand their domains and had succeeded in seizing almost all of Pietro’s domains. While he was defending Pontremoli, a messenger from the Venetian Republic reached him and brought him the message from the Venetian senate, asking him to take command of the Serenissima’s army to defeat the common Veronese enemy, with the promise of regaining possession of Parma in the event of victory. The condottiero is depicted in armor and standing in the center of the scene, with the Venetian envoy at his side, and with his family, his wife and daughters kneeling and begging him not to leave. However, the protagonist, faced with a choice between family and duty to his homeland, resolves for the latter. The painting presents several points of break with the neoclassical tradition: first of all, the fact that the painting is of a medieval rather than a classical setting, the fact that the painting aims to arouse emotions in the viewer (including through the use of a rather somber color scheme), as well as the veracity of the composition and historical narrative. The message of this painting is very clear: Peter Rossi is seen as a hero who puts his country before his family, fighting against the foreign enemy, struggling against it to the last to get rid of it-all themes of great relevance at the time the painting was made. The painting was first exhibited in Milan in 1820 and caused quite a stir precisely because of its novelty. Of the same tenor is the Sicilian Vespers: another painting set in the Middle Ages (in 1282, to be exact), albeit depicted with still neoclassical accents, and with further topical references related to the 1821 uprisings that also broke out in Sicily.

Hayez also created works inspired by contemporary events: among them, I profughi di Parga of 1831, inspired by a poem by Giovanni Berchet, published in 1823 and telling of a Greek city, Parga, that ended up under the Turks despite the fact that the inhabitants had fought to the end to save their homeland. With his painting, Hayez set himself the goal of depicting historical truth, as he himself had written in his memoirs: in his view, the painter’s task is the “search for the beautiful in the true,” and “the artist must tremble before the true,” even if the image of the painting must be formed in imagination.

Finally, as for Hayez’s portraiture, it is possible to mention some important portraits such as those of Alessandro Manzoni, Cavour, and Massimo D’Azeglio, which also give an idea of how much the Venetian painter was held in esteem by the leading figures of the time. The first was made in 1841: according to what the painter himself reported, the portrait was made in a villa owned by the Stampa counts in Lesa, on Lake Maggiore, a place where Manzoni stayed several times in the summer starting in 1839. The news is also confirmed by Giacomo Beccaria, Manzoni’s cousin, who wrote that the man of letters showed him his portrait executed by Hayez on the occasion of a meeting between them. Many members of the Milanese aristocracy were portrayed by Francesco Hayez, and the portrait of Alessandro Manzoni is but one example of this copious production. As for the portrait of Cavour, it is a work that dates from 1864 and was commissioned by the council of the Brera Academy. It is a posthumous portrait, because Cavour died in 1861 just a few months after the proclamation of the Unification of Italy, which took place on March 17, 1861. The portrait was therefore executed from a plaster mask, as opposed to Manzoni’s portrait, which was instead executed from life. Finally, the portrait of Massimo d’Azeglio, from 1860, is kept at the Pinacoteca di Brera and was executed from a photograph. What all these portraits have in common is the great precision, high fidelity, and high realism that brought Hayez great critical acclaim and great praise from patrons. There are also numerous female portraits by Hayez, such as that of the Princess of Sant’Antimo, of uncertain date but dating from the 1940s, and that of Antonietta Negroni Prati Morosini: in these paintings it is especially worth noting the delicacy with which the faces of the women portrayed are depicted and the great attention and care for detail that Hayez devotes to the depiction of their clothing.

Francesco Hayez, Rinaldo e Armida (1812-1813; olio su tela, 198 x 295 cm; Venezia, Galleria dell’Accademia)
Francesco Hayez, Rinaldo and Armida (1812-1813; oil on canvas, 198 x 295 cm; Venice, Galleria dell’Accademia)

Francesco Hayez, Ritratto di Alessandro Manzoni (1841; olio su tela, 120 x 92,5 cm; Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera)
Francesco Hayez, Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni (1841; oil on canvas, 120 x 92.5 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera)

Where to see the works of Francesco Hayez

Francesco Hayez’s works are preserved in several museums throughout Italy. The most famous are at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, which holds the Laocoon, one of three versions of Il Bacio, the portrait of Alessandro Manzoni, and other important paintings. Also in Milan are works by Hayez at the GAM, such as the portrait of Antonietta Negri Prati Morosini and the Penitent Magdalene. Other works can be found in Rome, at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, and then again at the Museo di San Martino in Naples, the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo in Brescia, and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna at Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

TheLast Kiss between Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, can be found in Tremezzo, at Villa Carlotta, while the famous Meditation is kept at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Verona, and at the Mart in Rovereto it is possible to admire the very famous Venus Joking with Two Doves, the famous portrait of Carlotta Chabert(read an in-depth look at this painting here). Still, to see works by Hayez, one can visit the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, the Museo Correr in Venice, the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, and several other institutions that preserve important collections of 19th-century art.

Francesco Hayez, life and works of the great painter of Italian Romanticism
Francesco Hayez, life and works of the great painter of Italian Romanticism

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