Sunday, 4 December 2016


“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Giovanni Segantini (15 January 1858 – 28 September 1899) was an Italian painter known for his large pastoral landscapes of the Alps. He was one of the most famous artists in Europe in the late 19th century, and his paintings were collected by major museums. In later life he combined a Divisionist painting style with Symbolist images of nature. He was active in Switzerland for most of his life.

Giovanni Battista Emanuele Maria Segatini [sic] was born at Arco in Trentino, which was then part of the County of Tyrol in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He later changed his family name by adding an “n” after the “a”. He was the second child of Agostino Segatini (1802–1866) and Margherita de Giradi (1828–1865). His older brother, Lodovico, died in a fire the year Giovanni was born. During the first seven years of his life his father, who was a tradesman, travelled extensively while looking for work.

Except for a six-month period in 1864 when Agostino returned to Trentino, Segantini spent his early years with his mother, who experienced severe depression due to the death of Lodovico. These years were marked by poverty, hunger and limited education due to his mother’s inability to cope. In the spring of 1865 his mother died after spending the past seven years in increasingly poor health. His father left Giovanni under the care of Irene, his second child from a previous marriage, and again travelled in search of work. He died a year later without returning home and leaving his family nothing.

Without money from her father, Irene lived in extreme poverty. She was forced to spend most of her time working menial jobs while leaving Giovanni to subsist on his own. Irene hoped to improve her life by moving to Milan, and in late 1865 she submitted an application to relinquish Austrian citizenship for both her brother and her. She either misunderstood the process or simply did not have enough time to follow through, and although their Austrian citizenship was revoked she neglected to apply for Italian citizenship. As a result, both Segantini and his sister remained stateless for the rest of their lives.

After he became famous, Switzerland offered Segantini citizenship on more than one occasion, but he refused in spite of many hardships, saying Italy was his true homeland. After his death the Swiss government successfully awarded him citizenship. At age seven Segantini ran away and was later found living on the streets of Milan. The police committed him to the Marchiondi Reformatory, where he learned basic cobbling skills but little else. For much of his early life he could barely read or write; he finally learned both skills when he was in his mid-30s.

Fortunately a chaplain at the reformatory noticed that he could draw quite well, and he encouraged this talent in an attempt to lift his self-esteem. In 1873 Segantini’s half-brother Napoleon claimed him from the reformatory, and for the next year Segantini lived with Napoleon in Trentino. Napoleon ran a photography studio, and Segantini learned the basics of this relatively new art form while working there with his half-brother. He would later use photography to record scenes that he incorporated into his painting.

He attended courses at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan and achieved his first success with his painting, “Il coro di Sant’Antonio” (The Choir of Sant’Antonio). In 1881, Segantini turned his back on the city and together with Luigia Bugatti, known as Bice, settled in the Brianza, a lakeland district situated between Milan and Como. His rejection of the city and the Academy, with its doctrinaire rules and prescribed mythological and religious subject matter, is typical of the times. Like many artists, Segantini looked beyond traditional forms of painting in search of naturalistic, simple motifs from everyday life.

At that time, the Brianza was an entirely rural landscape, and Segantini immediately set to work studying the daily lives of the peasants. The close relationship between the shepherds or shepherdesses and their animals was a favourite pictorial motif, which the artist also repeatedly took up in Graubünden. In 1882, the unmarried couple’s first son, Gottardo, (who was later to became a painter himself and also wrote his father’s biography) was born, followed in later years by sons Alberto and Mario and daughter Bianca.

In August 1886, after a long exploratory trip, Giovanni Segantini settled in Savognin, an Alpine farming village in the Oberhalbstein region of Graubünden. Shortly afterwards, in the winter of 1886/87, he received a visit from his art dealer, Vittore Grubicy, who informed his protégé of the latest developments in the art world in France. However, in particular the Alpine landscape, with its crystal-clear light, led Segantini to discover a new pictorial language.

Occasionally, he gave the closely observed mountain landscapes symbolic content, creating allegorical pictorial visions of extraordinary luminosity. This shift away from realistic genre painting came at a time when it was in crisis all across Europe. After eight years in Savognin, Giovanni Segantini moved with his family to the Engadin; he was unable to pay the cantonal taxes and was being pursued by creditors.

In 1894, he took up residence in the Chalet Kuoni in Maloja. Here, the artist – whose paintings were among the most expensive of the day – continued to enjoy the extravagant lifestyle of the Milanese upper classes, which rapidly swallowed up his increasingly high fees. The family spent the winter in Soglio, in the Bregaglia valley. On 28 September 1899, at the age of 41 years, Segantini died unexpectedly on the Schafberg high above Pontresina while working on the middle section of his Alpine Triptych.

More than anything else, Segantini’s work represents the quintessential transition from traditional nineteenth-century art to the changing styles and interests of the twentieth century. He began with simple scenes of common people living off of the earth ‒ peasants, farmers, shepherds ‒ and moved toward a thematic symbolist style that continued to embody the landscapes around him while intertwining pantheistic images representing “a primeval Arcadia.”

Over the course of his life he moved from both the physical and emotional internal, such as his scene of motherhood in a stable, to the grand external views of the mountain scenery where he chose to live. Nature and the connections of people to nature are the core themes of his art. After he moved to the mountains he wrote: “I am now working passionately in order to wrest the secret of Nature’s spirit from her. Nature utters the eternal word to the artist: Love, love; and the earth sings life in spring, and the soul of things reawakens.” 

His 1896 painting “Love at the Springs of Life” (See above - Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Milan) reflects Segantini’s philosophical approach to his art. Set in the high mountain landscape near his home, it pictures an angel with large wings spread over a small waterfall flowing from some rocks. In the distance two lovers, clothed in white flowing robes, walk along a path coming toward the spring. Around them are flowers that would have been seen by viewers at the time as symbols of love and life. Art historian Robert Rosenblum described Segantini as transforming “the earthbound into the spiritual”, and the artist himself referred to his work as “naturalist Symbolism.” He said “I’ve got God inside me. I don’t need to go to church.”

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