At Home with the Florentine Romantics

By the second half of the 19th century the city of Florence – once home to Raphael and birthplace of the High Renaissance – had become the centre of Italy’s first modernist art movement. The Macchiaioli were a group of socially conscious artists whose paintings of contemporary working people were inspired by Courbet, Corot, and Millet. Although today the Macchiaioli are thought of as second-class Impressionists their work actually prefigured that of their more famous Parisian antecedents and in truth probably shared as much in common with the social realist painters of Victorian Britain such as Luke Fildes and Frank Holl. With this is mind it’s fascinating to think that at the height of this rugged Tuscan proto-Impressionism, across town a new intake of students at the Florence Academy of Art were painting pictures so flamboyantly ‘Fête Galante’ they would have turned the head of Marie Antoinette had she not already lost it.

In the 1870s, the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence – founded in 1563 by Michelangelo and Giorgio Vasari – would have been well populated with pupils enthusiastically following in the footsteps (and deliberately visible brushstrokes) of the Macchiaioli, but not so the young Florentine Romantics* who chose to fly in the face of modernism with their highly finished bourgeoise interiors of aristocratic ladies of the Ancien Régime.

‘Regina dei Fiori’ by Frédéric Soulacroix

The artistic inclinations of Frédéric Soulacroix (1858- 1933), Vittorio Reggianini (1858-1939), Pio Ricci (1850-1919) and Arturo Ricci (1854-1919) were no doubt inspired by the Neo-Rococo paintings of Francesco Beda (1840-1900) and nurtured by their teachers at the Academy, Giovanni Costa (1833–1893) and Tito Conti (1842-1924), two greatly underrated artists in their own right whose work has never been given the credit it deserves. Costa and Conti’s chosen subject matter – well-dressed pretty girls – did not and never would lend itself to deep scholarly criticism and consequently has always been too easily dismissed as frivolous. Their subjects may very well be so, but the great skill demonstrated in their depiction should not be so similarly defined.

Like the young Florentine Romantics they taught, Costa and Conti’s paintings have always caused confusion and theoretical consternation in the mind of art world panjandrums. Just as the 19th century American art critic James Jackson Jarves couldn’t help but praise Conti’s “painting of tapestried backgrounds, ornate furniture, and elaborate details” he found it impossible to separate the ‘how’ from the ‘what’, adding “He paints too well for his subject. If his creative faculty were equal to his execution, he would be the first painter of his day.” Typical art world snobbery and befuddlement.

Tito Conti and his studio in Florence

I have no doubt that for Costa, Conti, and the Florentine Romantics, what they painted was far less important than how they painted it. As prominent as they appear in the composition, the figures in their paintings are of secondary importance to the luxurious fabrics and fashions draped about them. Like modern day supermodels on a runway, these young woman were to Soulacroix and Reggianini what Claudia Schiffer and Linda Evangelista were to Karl Lagerfeld; the perfect dummies on which to hang their creations.

Of course, any young artist hoping to forge a successful career needs to sell paintings and clearly the critics of the day weren’t going to help. Fortunately, in the final decades of the 19th century (before the advent of mass media) it was possible to be thought démodé by the avant-garde and yet still à la mode by the art-buying public – in this case wealthy Americans and European Grand Tourists hoping to buy a painting whilst visiting Florence. Old Masters of any real quality (and genuine age) had become thin on the ground but the work of the Florentine Romantics was abundant and appealing, and like the paintings of Raphael himself; harmonious, beautiful, and serene.

‘Casanova’ by Vittorio Reggianini

Another criticism levelled at Soulacroix and Reggianini again concerns their choice of subject, specifically that they painted the same thing over and over again. Only someone with very little knowledge of art history would ever make such a silly accusation – I mean – show me an artist of any significance who didn’t do that. How many times did Monet paint water lilies and haystacks? How many times did Constable sit down to sketch the river Stour? Don’t even get me started on Warhol and his endless production line of dayglo Marilyn’s. People talk about Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ and Munch’s ‘The Scream’ as if there were only one of each in existence when there are at least four versions of both.

Ask anyone fortunate enough to own a Soulacroix or Reggianini painting what they find most attractive about it and in most cases the period characters and locations won’t even get a mention. It is the artists’ enormous technical skill they admire; the virtuoso brushwork in the exquisite rendering of silk dresses and fine fabrics and the sensation of serenity and opulence they bring to any room in which they are hung. Today, in this age of shoddy workmanship and vague abstraction, I believe their artistry and precision is perhaps more appealing than ever.

* The painters I have here called the Florentine Romantics are elsewhere traditionally described – or dismissed – as “Italian costume genre painters” but I think they deserve better, not least because the word ‘costume’ is clearly used pejoratively, and they were not all Italian. Of course, there were many young artists working in other European cities cities at the time whose work was not dissimilar, but neither was it the same. Their technique was looser and their subjects – particularly in the case of another ex-Florence Academy graduate Andrea Landini (1847-1935) – laced with  Catholic whimsy.

‘Regina dei Fiori’ by Frédéric Soulacroix is now available for purchase and can be viewed via our online Gallery.

by Gavin Claxton © Academy Fine Paintings 2022