Giovanni Segantini, life and works of the great Symbolist painter


Giovanni Segantini was one of the major painters of Symbolism. Life, style, works.

Giovanni Segantini (Arco, 1858 - Mount Schafberg, 1899) was one of the most important painters of Symbolism. The figure of this artist is closely linked to the Swiss territory, where he spent a good part of his short life (he died at the age of only 41 crushed by peritonitis, while involved in an intense outdoor painting session in the mountains). His work is characterized by rural and bucolic themes, at first in a veristic vein, depicting glimpses and scenes of rural life in Lombardy, then turning to naturalism inspired by the Barbizon school, and finally veering toward symbolism, thus using nature as an allegory to present certain reflections and messages.

The gradual shift to symbolism also coincides with a major change in technique, that is, little by little Segantini abandons colors mixed together to introduce the divisionist technique. This technique, derived directly from pointillism, consisted of painting shapes by juxtaposing touches and lines of pure color, so that at a general glance the scene appeared without using sharp outlines. Today, Segantini is considered one of the leading Italian Divisionist painters. Recurring themes in his works are the countryside (stables with cattle, flocks of sheep, women working with materials), motherhood, initially presented in a verist manner and then veering toward condemnation of women who reject it (a theme derived from the trauma Segantini personally experienced when he lost his mother as a child), and the mountain landscape.

Giovanni Segantini, Self-Portrait (ca. 1882; oil on canvas, 52 x 38.5 cm; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum, deposit of the Eidg. Kommission der Gottfried KellerStiftung)
Giovanni Segantini, Self-Portrait (ca. 1882; oil on canvas, 52 x 38.5 cm; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum, deposit of the Eidg. Kommission der Gottfried KellerStiftung)

Life of Giovanni Segantini

Giovanni Seg antini was born on January 15, 1858, to Agostino Segantini and Margarita de Girardi in Arco, Trentino, a region then part of the Austrian Empire. Following the untimely death of his mother in 1865, his father decided to send him to Milan to another older daughter from a previous relationship. The period in Milan, however, was not a happy one for Segantini as he felt the distance from his family and began to close in on himself; in addition, he was isolated somewhat by everyone because he was considered stateless, without true citizenship. He was also arrested for vagrancy and locked up in a reformatory, from which he was released in 1873. Once out, he settled near Trento with another half-brother, named Napoleon, and worked in his workshop to support himself.

After a year he returned to Milan, and having in the meantime discovered a passion for painting he enrolled in evening classes at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, which he managed to pay for by working in the workshop of decorator Luigi Tettamanzi. At the Academy he had Giuseppe Bertini, a Romantic and verist painter, as a professor, and it is no coincidence that his early works show the influence of Lombard verismo. Segantini exhibited his canvases to the public for the first time during the Academy’s annual exhibition in 1879, attracting the interest of critics and in particular the artist, critic, and dealer Vittore Grubicy. Segantini collaborated with Grubicy for a long time, especially from the time the latter opened an art gallery in Milan with his brother that proved to be a breeding ground for several Lombard artists, particularly the Scapigliati. Segantini’s friendships included Carlo Bugatti, a designer and cabinetmaker, who became his brother-in-law shortly thereafter. In fact, the painter married Bice Bugatti, his friend’s sister, and moved with her to Brianza. He continued to work in the following years thanks to the support of Grubicy, with whom he signed an exclusive contract for his gallery in 1883.

During this period he also began to obtain his first national and international awards, in fact in the same year he won the gold medal at the Amsterdam International Exhibition for the work Ave maria a trasbordo (in the first version of 1882) and won a prize in Antwerp for La tosatura delle pecore (1883-1884). It was then the work Alla stanga in 1886 that secured him the most important honors, as in addition to winning another gold medal in Amsterdam, he received an offer to purchase it from the Italian state for the GNAM - Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, where the work is still kept today. In the same year as the successes of Alla Stanga, Segantini moved to Switzerland, to Savognin. There he became acquainted with Divisionist technique, while in the meantime Grubicy and his fervent promotional activities granted him greater international fame: Segantini participated in the Italian Exhibition in London and became very famous and sought after as a contributor to art magazines. A few years later, in 1894, the artist began to manifest a desire to retire in solitude to meditate and cultivated a personal tendency toward mysticism, so he moved again, choosing Maloja, in the SwissEngadine valley, surrounded only by the imposing Alpine mountains. The landscape so majestic and isolated would be a great protagonist in his later works.

He fell so much in love with the area that he wanted to accomplish a unique feat, which was to build a pavilion dedicated specifically to the Engadine for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. Initially the pavilion was intended as a circular structure that was to contain a huge canvas reproduction of the local landscape, a full 70 meters wide and 220 meters long, however, the prohibitive costs of the project forced him to scale it down, so Segantini transformed it into the three famous canvases joined together under the title Triptych of the Alps. In any case, the triptych was rejected by the commissioners of the pavilion, as in their view it did not adequately reflect the tourist image of the area they wished to show in Paris, so the triptych was exhibited in the Italian pavilion. The painter passed away at the age of only 41, on Sept. 28, 1899, while he was painting on Mount Schafberg, caught in an attack of appendicitis that resulted in peritonitis. He was buried in the Maloja cemetery.

Giovanni Segantini, The Choir of the Church of SantAntonio Abate in Milan (1879; oil on canvas, 119 x8 5.5 cm; Milan, Gallerie d'Italia, Piazza Scala)
Giovanni Segantini, The Choir of the Church of SantAntonio Abate in Milan (1879; oil on canvas, 119 x8 5.5 cm; Milan, Gallerie d’Italia, Piazza Scala)
Giovanni Segantini, The Naviglio at Ponte San Marco (1880; oil on canvas, 76 x 52.5 cm; Private collection)
Giovanni Segantini, The Naviglio at Ponte San Marco (1880; oil on canvas, 76 x 52.5 cm; Private collection)
Giovanni Segantini, Bagpipers in Brianza (ca. 1883-1885; oil on canvas, 107.2 x 192.2 cm; Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art)
Giovanni Segantini, Zampognari in Brianza (c. 1883-1885; oil on canvas, 107.2 x 192.2 cm; Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art)
Giovanni Segantini, The Blessing of the Sheep (1884; oil on canvas, 198 x 120 cm; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum)
Giovanni Segantini, The Blessing of the Sheep (1884; oil on canvas, 198 x 120 cm; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum)
Giovanni Segantini, A messa prima (1884-1886; oil on canvas, 108 x 211 cm; St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen)
Giovanni Segantini, At Mass Before (1884-1886; oil on canvas, 108 x 211 cm; St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen)
Giovanni Segantini, Alla stanga (1886; oil on canvas, 170 x 390 cm; Rome, National Gallery of Modern Art)
Giovanni Segantini, Alla stanga (1886; oil on canvas, 170 x 390 cm; Rome, National Gallery of Modern Art)

Segantini’s style and works

The parabola of Giovanni Segantini’s painting starts from an early verist production in which he reports glimpses of typical peasant life in Lombardy, and then later veers toward more symbolist themes emphasized by his adherence to Divisionist technique. Starting with his early works, the most important include Il coro della chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate in Milano (1879), in which the painter demonstrates a very high-level study of light and a decidedly faithful rendering of the details of the foreshortening depicted, and Il Naviglio a Ponte San Marco (1880), where once again the rendering of light lends great quality to the painting. The peculiarity of these early paintings is that they are both of small format.

The later works are mainly genre scenes set in the Lombardy countryside, bringing to the canvas fragments of life at the time, including typical objects and clothing. In these works, moreover, it is possible to make an immediate association with echoes of the painting of Barbizon and Jean-François Millet. Among the most significant are Zampognari in Brianza (c. 1883-1885), a simple scene that nevertheless becomes articulate in terms of the rendering of the protagonists, among the pipers who give the work its title who are actually positioned off to the side, in semi-darkness, and portrayed in arched positions, and the women in typical dress who listen to them as they work, particularly noticeable is the difference between the younger one being distracted by the melody while the older one continues undaunted in her work. The cocoon harvest of 1882, on the other hand, shows three women of different generations working in a rural-type room, with sunlight cleverly illuminating the work in progress while the rest of the room is in darkness.

The two works, The Blessing of the Sheep (1884) and A Mass Before (1884-86), show the first hints of symbolism, identifiable in the choice to reproduce the Brianza views of Inverigo and Veduggio in a recognizable but not faithful way, reworking them in a way that gives the painting more monumentality. For example, in A messa prima, the church should appear rotated 180 degrees relative to the steps, whereas in the work it has been shifted to isolate the priest more and give him a more courtly sense. Segantini in these works actually focuses heavily on the verticality of the foreshortening to emphasize the spiritual charge of the ecclesiastical characters depicted. Segantini’s naturalist phase reached its climax with Alla stanga (1886), which he made during an outdoor painting session in Caglio, in the province of Como, where the painter had retired to paint in solitude. The painting met with much critical and public acclaim and would prove to be Segantini’s last work in which colors are applied to the canvas shaded and blended, before his transition to pointillism. The landscape reproduced in the work is, again, recognizable but not entirely true to life, as it blends together images from different places. The feeling of openness given by the very broad foreshortening suggests how the painter intended to use the expedient of the landscape view not to reproduce a very specific place but to go so far as to represent the infinite.

With 1888, came the turning point for Segantini both personally and artistically, as by now at the height of his success and having gained his first international recognition, he moved to Switzerland and began to incorporate decidedly more Symbolist elements into his work. In this period the painter takes a theme that had already been presented in works from the Naturalist period, namely motherhood, to the height of allegorical intent. Indeed, in the earlier Hail Mary at Transshipment (1882) there was already a mother tenderly clutching her child, in a realistic manner, but in the work The Two Mothers (1889) there appears a precise parallelism about motherhood present in both humans and animals: there are both a woman putting an infant to sleep in her arms and a cow resting her calf on her leg. The work is shown again about ten years later with the same title, but this time a mother and child are depicted walking along a mountain path together with a sheep and her lamb, and the technique is now largely pointillist unlike the first version. Motherhood also recurs in Segantini’s two most Symbolist canvases ever, namely The Bad Mothers (1894) and The Angel of Life (1895), which he painted in different versions.

For The Bad Mothers, Segantini was inspired by concepts gleaned from a text in Nirvana by librettist Luigi Illica. Marked in childhood by the untimely loss of his mother, the painter used the text in question to condemn all women who for whatever reason had rejected motherhood in their lives in favor of sexual pleasures and, moreover, to represent figuratively the Symbolist concept of the dualism between woman-mother and woman-female. In the work, a female figure is recognized at the center who, as in the literary reference text, is imprisoned in a birch tree and is tormented by the voices of the children she never had. The heads of the aforementioned children emerge from the branches and roots of the trees, and one of them attaches to the woman’s breast, and this gesture initiates a path of redemption that will lead her to Nirvana. All of this takes place in a frosty surrounding in which bare, twisted trees stand out, emphasizing the feeling of discomfort and torment felt by the sinful women, though on their way to forgiveness. The angel of life , on the other hand, is a sort of pagan counterbalance to the Virgin and Child, a classic theme in religious-themed painting. The ethereal mother is depicted seated on a throne made of twisted birch branches holding a small child. The branches, some flowering and some dry, symbolize in this case the cycle of life and death, over which motherhood towers eternally.

In the works described so far, the Divisionist technique is present in several details but is not yet predominant, while The painting that marks the full accession turns out to be the 1896 work Love at the Source of Life, which depicts a pair of lovers approaching a spring where they encounter an angel guarding it.Pointillism is based on the same concept as pointillism, whereby single lines of color juxtaposed together succeed in optically restoring the form intended to be represented, so in this work Segantini uses this expedient to paint both the landscape and the figures of the two protagonists, producing a work that is light, ethereal and rarefied, but at the same time in full motion.

Segantini’s last major work is the Alpine Tri ptych or Engadine Triptych, which features views of the Engadine area painted at different times of day to again symbolize, as in the dry and flowering branches of The Angel of Life, the cycle of life. The titles of the three works are Life, in which the theme of motherhood returns with the figure of the mother and child set in a landscape that also suggests a reference to mother earth; Nature, where the moment of the return of the pasture is portrayed; and Death, represented by a group of women dressed in mourning who, at first light, await the beginning of a funeral. In all three paintings the Divisionist component is confirmed in the use of filaments of color, skillfully used to render the modulation of light according to the various moments of the day. The entire triptych was created by Segantini in the open air and was his last project in the last months of his life.

Giovanni Segantini, Hail Mary at Transshipment (second version, 1886; oil on canvas, 120 x 93 cm; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum, repository of the Otto Fischbacher-Giovanni Segantini Stiftung)
Giovanni Segantini, Hail Mary at Transshipment (second version, 1886; oil on canvas, 120 x 93 cm; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum, depository of the Otto Fischbacher-Giovanni Segantini Stiftung)
Giovanni Segantini, The Two Mothers (1889; oil on canvas, 157 x 280 cm; Milan, Galleria d'Arte Moderna)
Giovanni Segantini, The Two Mothers (1889; oil on canvas, 157 x 280 cm; Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna)
Giovanni Segantini, The Bad Mothers (1894; oil on canvas, 120 x 225 cm; Vienna, √?sterreichische Galerie Belvedere)
Giovanni Segantini, The Bad Mothers (1894; oil on canvas, 120 x 225 cm; Vienna, √?sterreichische Galerie Belvedere)
Giovanni Segantini, Langelo della vita (1894; oil on canvas, 276 x 212 cm; Milan, Galleria dArte Moderna)
Giovanni Segantini, Langelo della vita (1894; oil on canvas, 276 x 212 cm; Milan, Galleria dArte Moderna)
Giovanni Segantini, Lamore at the Source of Life (1896; oil on canvas, 72 x 100 cm; Milan, Galleria d'Arte Moderna)
Giovanni Segantini, Lamore at the Source of Life (1896; oil on canvas, 72 x 100 cm; Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna)
Giovanni Segantini, Alpine Triptych, La Natura (1899; oil on canvas; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum)
Giovanni Segantini, Alpine Triptych, La Natura (1899; oil on canvas; Sankt Moritz, Segantini Museum)

Where to see the works of Giovanni Segantini

The Swiss territory of the Engadine was of fundamental importance to Segantini’s life, and the painter’s presence there is still celebrated in various ways today. In Maloja, for example, there is a 12-stage trail, the “Segantini Weg,” leading to a wooden exhibition space that replicated the Engadine pavilion designed for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. The structure, however, does not preserve the Alpine Triptych, which is instead located in the Segantini Museum. This museum was set up in St. Moritz, the main center of the Engadine, specifically to worthily preserve the Alpine Tri ptych, and most of the painter’s works, namely 55 canvases and works on paper, as well as various drawings, converged here. In fact, The Cow in the Stable (1882), The Blessing of the Sheep (1884), The Shearing of the Sheep (1886-87), The Dead Roe Deer (1892) and The Harvesting of the Hay (1889-98), among others, are preserved here.

In Milan, there are two paintings in the Gallerie di Piazza Scala, namely The Choir of the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate in Milan (1879) and The Gathering of Cocoons (1882), while the Civica Galleria d’Arte Moderna contains the 1889 version of The Two Mothers (1889), The Angel of Life (1894) and Love at the Source of Life (1896).

In addition, as mentioned in the biography in the GNAM - National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome is preserved the famous Alla stanga (1886).

Giovanni Segantini, life and works of the great Symbolist painter
Giovanni Segantini, life and works of the great Symbolist painter


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