The Painter of Light

Written by  Gianni Venturi
An exhibition at Palazzo Reale, in Milan, has finally done justice to an extraordinary painter from Ferrara: Gaetano Previati.
Born into a respectable lower middle class family in Ferrara in 1852, Gaetano Previati did not have an easy life. As his vocation for painting grew, he was encouraged by Pagliarini, no mean painter in his own right. After a spell studying in Florence he moved to Milan, where he attended Bertini's nude drawing and painting course at the Brera Academy. Previati achieved renown with the painting The Hostages of Crema, which won the Canonica award for historical painting in 1879.

In Milan, the painter from Ferrara was attracted to the Scapigliatura movement, by the restless and confused protest that was arising in the rich industrial North, and by an awakening religious sensibility that blended sacred themes with the rights of that fourth estate that Pelizza da Volpedo was to represent so efficaciously.

But it was only with Previati's adherence to Divisionism and with the showing of Maternità that his style found its true path and his art began to reveal itself as fine as anything in Europe at the time. Maternità caused a scandal at the 1891 Triennale not only because of the subject, but also for the technique used: the threads of colour that followed the sinuous form of the mother bent over the child were in their turn surrounded by luminous rays emitted by the wings of the angels.
In Maternità, Previati's adoption of the poetics and the techniques of Divisionism reveals not only a technical awareness of the "scientific" laws of colour and its properties, but also a theoretical capacity that is superbly exemplified by this masterpiece of Divisionism.

In a monograph written in 1919, Nino Barbantini outlined a theory of Divisionism in which he drew parallels with Previati's highly evocative experiments. The Divisionist painter, said Barbantini, seeks a palette offering greater luminosity, hard to obtain with mixed and therefore "dirty" colours. According to Neo-Impressionist colour theory, the combination of the secondary colours in either dots or streaks provides brighter and more luminous colour mixes.

Unlike pointilliste technique, in Divisionism the colour is condensed and twisted into strips of light that when lined up alongside one another become a vibrant and luminous "dust cloud" that was soon to become Previati's trademark. Maternità, misunderstood at the Milan exhibition, was to have a controversial success in Paris the following year at the Salon des Rose-Croix, which was sponsored by the Rosicrucian movement, a powerful influence on symbolist painting.

In bringing together symbol and Divisionist technique, Previati wished to shed light on that secret reality of things that De Chirico came to see as a metaphysical premise. Colour became the expression and the revelation of symbol: it was an attempt to give form to ideas rather than to emotions and feelings.

The picture had to express the idea of maternity through the adoption of a Divisionist technique that created the swirling movement typical of Previati's great works, like The Dream.
Previati's heyday coincided with that of Symbolism and his work was strongly imbued with the literary aspects of that movement. Among the feelings that symbolism calls up is a sense of the vagueness, the inexpressible quality of things.

Previati's artistic experiments are therefore anchored by Romantic roots, roots grounded in the problem of how to treat light, the stylistic key to these great compositions, a light that is not only the plein air of the Impressionists, but also the light of the idea, that platonic light that is vision and therefore intellectual awareness.
It was no accident that Previati was known as the "painter OF light" an unheard of light for those times, which was needed to highlight the symbol, an intellectual light, and therefore a light that was above all religious.

It was precisely the light extracted from Divisionist technique that created the shimmering glow of colours, the stylistic keynote of masterpieces like The Dream or Day Awakening Night.
Previati returned to this theme in a letter to his brother dated 9 February 1893 in which he says, referring to the Madonna of the Lilies: «I am toying with the idea that there is hardly a better title for it than Light. If the effects I am trying for come off then this would be the most suitable name, while it strikes me as quite suitable in an allegorical sense too.»
As he came to full maturity Previati became almost obsessive about the problem of light, as in the splendid painting The Dance of the Hours (1899) but above all in the important Day cycle (1907) in which the theme and the problem of light become the subject of the painting, which suggests that Barbantini was right to compare the evocative qualities of Previati's noonday light to D'Annunzio's poetry.

The thematic link with D'Annunzio is exemplified by the legend of Ugo and Parisina, inserted by D'Annunzio in the Malatesti trilogy and evidently inspired by Domenico Tumiati's poem. D'Annunzio's tragedy was set to music by Mascagni. In 1913 Sonzogno published an interesting edition of Parisina: text by D'Annunzio, music by Mascagni, and illustrations by Previati.

The image published here for the first time since Barbantini's monograph, (now in a Ferrara-based collection) is called Trovatori and shows a group of minstrels singing to a noblewoman, who is looking on from the balcony of a castle that strongly resembles an Este stronghold.
Everything, from the construction of the scene to the subject, from the deliberate poverty of the two basic colours, black and white, to the handling of light leads us to understand that the drawing was not a preparatory piece but an autonomous work, a form of expression complementary to the painting, but neither subjected to nor dependent upon it.

This reveals a new dimension to Previati's art, which is being reassessed not only for the major illustrative works, like the masterful drawings for the edition of Manzoni's The Betrothed and for Poe's Tales, but also for the quality of his drawing, so violently criticized by his contemporaries. Trovatori provides confirmation of this new interpretation of the complex artistic personality of a painter who had an insight into the expressive possibilities offered by drawing.

At this point I think we could put forward an interpretative hypothesis that hinges on the original convergence between Symbolism and Divisionism. If we applied a frame of reference to these movements that would allow of a rhetorical interpretation, we might see that, for Previati, adherence to Divisionism basically signified tackling the fundamental problem of how to render light, while adherence to the poetics of Symbolism expressed the urgent need to find new figures in the poetic discourse by using the renewed pictorial grammar of Divisionism.
If we observe Previati's extremely fine pictures of flowers it is above all the choice of flowers that emphasizes a cultural schema in which the dominant roses are associated with the humbler flowers of the fields and gardens: daisies, dahlias, irises, and chrysanthemums - flowers that perpetuate the idea of an everyday existence in which we can descry a sense of Mystery and Life.

In The Dream, as well as the meadow full of daisies there is a garland of flowers from which sprouts a common mallow that strongly resembles Pascoli's foxgloves, the flower-symbol of a sexual revelation, of a sexual consummation that sunders innocence. In these flowers the Symbolists' search for musical qualities in order to render, as Contini put it, «The indefinite, the impalpable, the effuse» achieved legitimacy in Italy too.

With his threads of colour, with that vespertine light redolent of bronze and golden dust, and with his poetics of the vague that lend form to light and colour, Previati's finest works reveal his search for a musical intonation.