Active throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and working mainly in Florence and Naples, the Macchiaioli were a group of non-conformist painters who wanted to break away from the stuffy, academic traditions of the Italian academies. Many of the artists involved in the movement were active rebels in the 1848 uprisings. The key painters of the movements include Telemaco Signorini, Giuseppe Abbati, Giovanni Fattori, and Silvestro Lega. This blog post will be concentrating on Signorini and Abbati, who’s work offers the best examples of the movement’s themes and styles.
The paintings of Macchiaioli artists may look familiar. Using patches (or macchie) of light, the fragmented painting style blends together when observed from a distance to form dreamy, hazy, vibrant scenes. The technique of painting outdoors and using dabbled brush strokes to form an overall impression was a totally new concept that was pioneered by the Macchiaioli. Today, they are considered precursors to Impressionism, having paved the way for the modern French mastery of Monet, Degas, Seurat, Morisot, Sisley, and many more. Importantly, however, the Macchiaioli were much less focused on their artistic capabilities, and more on the message of their work.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Macchiaioli were active at the same time as the Barbizon School. Importantly, the Barbizon focused on social realism, using art as a platform to incite social change: the soft landscapes and striking portraits of Corot and Courbet are about far more than artistic technique, touching on peasant life, social injustice, poverty, and labour. This was an important influence for the radical Macchiaioli, who used their work to visually express support for Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Italian Risorgimento (need to brush up on your Italian history? Find out about the unification of Italy). In Italy, the Macchiaioli were fighting to bring attention to Jewish emancipation, prisons, hospitals, women’s rights, and post-war conditions.
Abbati was a Neapolitan artist who moved to Florence in 1860. He soon became acquainted with other like-minded artists in the Caffè Michelangiolo where they discussed politics, art, trends, and influences including the Barbizon School. His experience fighting for Garibaldi’s Risorgimento meant Abbati lived between war and art. His often-solitary landscape paintings force the viewer to consider scenes of everyday life a suitable subject for fine art, breaking down long-standing traditions of exclusivity and academia.
Signorini was born in Florence, and was trained in history painting. After visiting Paris and seeing the work of the Barbizon school, Signiorini returned to Florence with a new approach to painting. Discussing his findings with his fellow artists in Florence, the Macchiaioli was born.
Signironi’s most significant works detail unmistakably radical scenes, intentionally provoking the traditions of classical painting. ‘The Ward of the Madwomen at S. Bonifazio in Florence’, 1865 is arguably his most famous work, and draws attention to the treatment of women, the result of war, and the conditions of the Italian health system. Signorini completed several paintings using this provocative subject matter, but I find his more simplistic paintings much more impactful. He also captured the humble elements of everyday life, depicting narrow city streets, winding markets, and labouring peasants with a technique that encouraged the viewer to take notice – to me, that is what makes Signorini’s paintings so successful.
The Macchiaioli are well-known across Italy, with major exhibitions feautring thier work in Genoa in 2019, Paudua in 2016, and even in Paris in 2013. The exhibition, ‘The Macchiaioli: Masters of Realism in Tuscany’ was shown at Manchester Art Gallery and in 1982 and ‘The Macchiaioli: painters of Italian life, 1850-1900’ was on display at the Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery in L.A. in 1986.
So, the Macchiaioli have not had a major exhibition in the UK or the USA since the 1980s. It’s no wonder no one has heard of them. Much of their work is located in private collections across the world, which may explain why museums have trouble loaning enough works to fill a Macchiaioli exhibition.
Nevertheless, I have my fingers crossed that we can see this fascinating movement return to the spotlight very soon.