Italian Divisionism
Neo-Impressionism in Italy: Origins, Divisionist Painting Method.

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Sea of Mist (Mare di nebbia) (1885)
Private Collection.
By Vittore Grubicy de Dragon.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

Divisionism in Italy (c.1890-1907)
Origins, Aims and Its Relationship to French Post-Impressionism


Introduction to Italian Divisionism
Italian Post-Impressionism
Divisionist Painting Technique
Subject Matter
Relationship of Divisionism with Neo-Impressionism
Optical Treatises: Theoretical Sources for Divisionism
The Role of Grubicy
Macchiaioli and Impressionism
Italian Impressionists
Articles and Exhibitions

Morning (Mattino) (1898)
Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan.
By Vittore Grubicy de Dragon.

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Introduction to Italian Divisionism

Italian Divisionists - named after the painting technique they used, namely the division of colour through individualized brushstrokes - were active in Italian avant-garde art during the 1890s and early 1900s, roughly 1891-1907. These artists worked within the confines of academic traditions, but they borrowed from techniques being used by modern artists in France, primarily those involved in Neo-Impressionism - also known as Pointillism - and drew on optics and chromatics in order to develop an entirely Italian idiom. (Note: to compare Impressionism, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.)

Divisionism appeared in Northern Italy towards the end of the 1880s. The first generation of Italian Divisionist painters featured Vittore Grubicy De Dragon (1851-1920), Angelo Morbelli (1853-1919), Plinio Nomellini (1866-1943), Emilio Longoni (1859-1932), Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907), Gaetano Previati (1852-1920), Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), and Giovanni Sottocornola (1855-1917). Divisionist painting technique was marked by the juxtaposition of strokes of colour pigment to create the optical effect of intense single colours. Its scientific basis stemmed from the optical and chromatic colour theory developed in such books as Modern Chromatics (1879) by the American scientist Ogden Rood and Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast (1839) by French chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul.

These theories had already been employed in the early 1880s by French-based Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and his follower Paul Signac (1863-1935), as well as painters like Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910), Maximilien Luce (1858-1941), Theo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), and Jan Toorop (1858-1928). Probably the most famous works of French Divisionism are: Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6) and Bathers at Asnieres (1883-4).

When Divisionism first took hold in Italy, Italian painters had seen little if any Neo-Impressionist canvases in the flesh. Instead they learned about Pointillism largely by reading French and Belgian journals such as Modern Art (L'Art Moderne). These included articles and reviews by the anarchist French art critic Felix Feneon, who was the first to coin the name "Neo-Impressionism." By 1887, these foreign sources were drawn on by the critic, gallerist, and painter Vittore Grubicy, who was the powerhouse behind the development and dissemination of Divisionism in Italy. His writings in the Roman newspaper La Riforma were especially influential.



Italian Post-Impressionism

Italy presents no homogeneous Post-Impressionism movement. In spite of several attempts to create an artistic centre in Post-Risorgimental Rome, regional schools continued to flourish up to and beyond the 1890s. Symbolism, Social Realism and Art Nouveau (termed Stile Liberty in Italy), three unifying elements in late nineteenth-century Italian painting, were nevertheless given different emphasis and interpretation in the various regions. Dominated primarily by English and German prototypes, Stile Liberty produced some interesting and original examples in the decorative arts. Moreover, it provided a background of 'Modernism' in the north, in Milan and Turin in particular, and, as such, its influence was felt by the Divisionists. Apart from Stile Liberty, Divisionism can justly claim to have been the leading avant-garde movement in Italy in the 1890s. Symbolist and Social Realist artists concentrated more on content than on technique and rarely developed radically new pictorial and compositional solutions. Divisionism, in which both Symbolism and socialism played an integral part, was an exception since its exponents sought and realized a new pictorial means of expression.

Not only did it dominate north-west Italy and later spread to Rome, but its influence was felt over almost three decades of Italian painting. In its most vital form, however, Divisionism belongs to the years between 1891 and 1907, the year of Pellizza's death: Segantini died in 1899 and other major protagonists - Vittore Grubicy, Morbelli, Nomellini and Previati - did not really develop beyond this date, although they painted up to and beyond the First World War. After 1907, a second generation of Divisionists was formed under the auspices of Alberto Grubicy's gallery in Milan (they contributed, for example, to exhibitions in Paris in 1907 and 1912), but these artists were generally eclectic and contribute little to a basic understanding of Divisionism. Of this group, Benvenuti (1881-1959), Cominetti (1882-1930) and Merello (1872-1926) developed the expressive and decorative possibilities of the technique in the early twentieth century. Innocenti's The Visit is representative of a Roman-based group of Divisionists, which included Lionne (1865-1921) and Noci (1874-1953), whose extravagant female portraits, influenced by the Spaniards Hermen Anglada and Ignacio Zuloaga, were shown at the Roman Secession from 1913.

Note: In order to outline the important historical links between the Divisionists and the early works of the Futurists - Balla and Boccioni in particular - all of whom evolved to some degree out of a Divisionist experience, we shall not dwell on very early Divisionist works such as those shown at the Brera Triennale of 1891 where Divisionism first appeared in the north, or those presented at the Florentine Promotrici from 1890 to 1892. Secondary figures of the first generation such as Fornara (1871-1968), Longoni (1859-1932) and Sottocornola (1855-1917) did produce one or two works of great artistic quality: Fornara's Washerwomen (1897, Private Collection, Domodossola), Longoni's Orator of the Strike (1891, Private Collection, Pisa) and Sottocornola's Workers' Dawn of (1897), are cases in point. These, and other artists, have been sacrificed in order to highlight the major outlines of the Divisionist movement in Italy.


Divisionism is not a movement easily defined, like Impressionism, by joint exhibitions. The Brera exhibition of 1891 was not an organized assault on academic art: Previati's Motherhood and Segantini's The Two Mothers were hung in the same room, but works by V. Grubicy, Longoni, Morbelli and Nomellini were scattered throughout the exhibition. At least three attempts were made, largely by Morbelli and Pellizza, to put on joint exhibitions but they all failed due to financial and organizational difficulties and the artists' strong sense of individuality. Works by the Divisionists did appear in the same northern exhibitions but, since the artists came from different regions, the regional organization of the rooms often precluded them from showing as a group. Many of them did not live in Milan: V. Grubicy and Segantini spent long periods in the Alps; Nomellini was based in Genoa; Morbelli spent his summers at Casale Monferrato and Pellizza was based in the tiny Alessandrian town of Volpedo. Nevertheless, Milan formed the group's artistic nucleus, since all but Nomellini had studied at the Brera and it was against the cultural background of the Scapigliatura that they first emerged. The term, meaning 'scruffy' or 'dishevelled', came from a novel of 1862 by C. Righetti, and refers to their bohemian way of life. Primarily a Romantic literary movement, it was at its height in Milan in the 1860s and 1870s. However, three artists, Carnovali (d.1873), Cremona (d.1878), and Ranzoni (d.1889) were of great influence on the Divisionists, anticipating their search for light and atmosphere. The Grubicy Gallery, founded in Milan in 1879, supported first the Scapigliati and then the Divisionists; all the principal Divisionists, except Pellizza and Morbelli who had independent means, came to have financial dealings with Vittore or Alberto Grubicy at some time or other.

Divisionist Painting Technique

Each of the Divisionists arrived at the technique and adapted it in a different way but neither they nor their contemporary critics had any difficulty in distinguishing their common aims or in giving them some sort of group identity. Morbelli limited this group to 12 or 14 artists in 1897 and extended it to over 30 by 1903. Through an intricate network of friendships they were all reasonably aware of developments made by others in the group. Pellizza, who knew Nomellini by 1888 and who corresponded with Morbelli and Segantini from about 1894, and Grubicy, who knew all the Divisionists well (though Nomellini somewhat later), were the two pivots around which these friendships revolved.

Most of the Divisionists were aware of the theory propounded by Ogden Rood in his treatise on colour theory entitled Modern Chromatics (1879), namely that two colours divided and juxtaposed, instead of being mixed on the palette, would combine together optically at a given distance, leading to increased luminosity and better representation of natural light. Michel Eugene Chevreul had proved (in his Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast [De la Loi du contraste simultane des couleurs], 1839) that complementary colours (red-green, yellow-violet, orange-blue etc.) were mutually intensified when juxtaposed, but Rood had suggested that still greater luminosity could be achieved by juxtaposing the complementaries of light which reacted differently from those of pigment - e.g. the complementary of green light is not red but violet. (See also: Colour Theory in Painting.) Gradations of a colour within its own hue by the addition of white or of colours in near proximity to it on Rood's Colour Circle would again increase luminosity. Optical fusion could be induced by placing small dots of paint alongside one another. This fusion does not, in fact, occur within the realm of normal perception and certainly not in Divisionist paintings where the brushstrokes tend to be rather large. Dove's explanation, quoted by Rood and the art critic Felix Feneon, of how the eye jumps from one coloured dot to the next perceiving them both separately and imagining their combination, is a more satisfactory explanation of the brilliant, vibrant effect of these paintings. The Divisionists were not, however, purely concerned with complementaries; they wanted to render all forms and effects of light as accurately as possible - pure sunlight, partially absorbed light, reflected light, irradiation and, in Balla's case, artificial light.

The 'point' was never, in fact, adopted by the Divisionists, although a stippled effect sometimes occurs in the works of Nomellini and Pellizza. According to Rood, in practice the colour theorist J.Mile had 'traced fine lines of colour parallel to each other, the tints being alternated' in order to achieve 'true mixtures of coloured light'. Morbelli adopted precisely this technique, noting that the finer the lines he used, the closer he came to the vibrant effect of light. Pellizza favoured a mixture of brushstrokes: 'It should not all be in little dots, nor in little lines, nor all mixed, neither should it be uniformly smooth or rough, but varied as the appearance of objects in nature are varied so that forms and colours can obtain a meaningful harmony'. Previati and Segantini used long, sweeping brushstrokes that were more often superimposed than juxtaposed, merging in an Impressionist fashion when the pigment was still wet. Segantini's technique is remarkably close to a passage from the book Elements of Drawing (1857), by John Ruskin (1819-1900), in which he proposes that colours should be applied in 'rather vigorous small touches, like finely chopped straw', filling in the interstices created by this loose brushwork with other, gradated colours. Ruskin's book had originally influenced the Neo-Impressionists through Rood's quotations from it, but it had been translated into Italian as early as 1870; Previati quoted it widely and Morbelli described it as 'very important'.


Allied to the artists' belief that Divisionism could increase luminosity was the Positivist-inspired conviction that a combination of art and science could only benefit the 'progress' of art and that the depiction of light was an intrinsically modern subject for painting. Grubicy foresaw the emergence of a whole new set of aesthetics:

Research based on the scientific theory of colours, apart from furnishing the art of painting with a technique, a language of greater social breadth, can open up the channel towards a whole new aesthetic of its own, to the treatment, that is, of radically new subjects, to the expression of certain aspects of the beauty of Nature untackled up until now. It is substantially an aesthetic which leads towards the study of another aspect of life, since we all feel that light is life and if, as many rightly affirm, art is life and light is a form of life, the Divisionist technique, which tends to increase the expression [of light] on the canvas compared with the past, can be the cradle of the aesthetic horizons of tomorrow, horizons which will have their own physiognomy which will leave a characteristic mark of our times for those to come, as all the great arts of the past have left their mark on theirs. (V.Grubicy: Tecnica e Estetica Divisionista, 1896)

Pellizza's Sun (1903-4, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome), one of a series of works portraying the phenomenon of light, is an extreme example of such a belief.

The 'radically new' subjects predicted by Grubicy were primarily concerned with Symbolism and socialism - the latter inasmuch as it was, itself, an Idea or concept. The Brera Triennale of 1891 saw the emergence of both trends. On that occasion, Grubicy defined Symbolism as an art aiming to express Ideas but whose forms were still attached to Reality and drawn from Nature, as was the case of Segantini's Two Mothers. Previati's Motherhood was an example of the still higher 'Ideist' art (a term derived from A. Aurier's 'Le Symbolisme en peinture', Mercure de France, 11,1891), where Ideas were no longer subservient to Reality but were to be expressed by means of a special, indefinite language, in a 'fluctuating, synthetic, overall vision of forms and colours which barely let the Symbolism or musical, almost supernatural, Ideism peep through'.

Pellizza's Symbolism and that of Segantini at his best was undoubtedly attached to Reality and was inspired by an empathetic, at times pantheist, attitude towards nature. Grubicy did not, as many critics have supposed, disapprove of Symbolism. Indeed, his own 'Ideist' concept of art, based on formal and abstract values, was probably closest to that of the less academic Symbolists in France, although the results were obviously profoundly different. He and Segantini agreed to go their separate ways in about 1890, not simply because Segantini had introduced Literary Symbolism to his work - first in the Fruits of Love (1889, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig) and then in The Punishment of Luxury, but because he had combined it with a naturalist landscape. Grubicy did not, for instance, object to the Symbolism of Previati's huge, Pre-Raphaelite-inspired religious or mythological triptychs. Nomellini too got caught up in a wave of D'Annunzian epic Symbolism in the later 1890s, and only Morbelli consistently rejected overt Symbolist references in his art.



Subject Matter

With the possible exception of Previati, all the Divisionists were drawn towards socialism to some extent. Grubicy wrote in 1889 that it was inevitable that the artist, as a sensitive human being, should become involved in the 'ideas and aspirations influencing the disinherited classes'. Pellizza too felt that the artist could not remain outside such 'vital questions' and that it was 'no longer time for Art for Art's sake, but for Art for Humanity'. Much of their involvement depended on an idealistic, humanitarian concern inspired by authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Ruskin and William Morris. Ruskin's anti-machine aesthetic is reflected in the writings of Grubicy and Segantini. Pellizza's In the Hayloft, the story of a destitute and dying agricultural worker, for example, was intended to portray 'the eternal contrast between life and death on the ideal plane. Although workers and peasants figure widely in Divisionist works, images with specific political implications rarely occur; Pellizza's The Fourth Estate is a political image almost in spite of its Idealist conception. The artist authorized its publication by the socialist press and Segantini drew a copy of The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet in 1897 for the Almanac of the Italian Socialist Party, but only Emilio Longoni, whose socialism was of a less humanitarian nature, regularly produced political images in his work. He was prosecuted for 'incitement to class hatred' when Reflections of a Starving Man (1893, Museo Civico, Biella) was published in a journal. In 1894, Nomellini was tried for his involvement with a group of Anarchists led by Luigi Galleani - the same year in which some of the Neo-Impressionists were involved in the trial of the Anarchist Emile Henry in France. The Divisionists' identification with the masses undoubtedly stems from the Romantic image of the artist as an outsider. According to Pellizza, it was the artist's duty to join with the masses and to ease their suffering by creating Beauty. Both he and Segantini believed that long periods of solitude, away from society, were necessary for artistic creation, but it remains something of a paradox just how this and their literary or rather esoteric forms of Symbolism were to be reconciled with their egalitarian beliefs.

Relationship of Divisionism with Neo-Impressionism

For many years, quite unjustly and with little historical foundation, Divisionism was considered an eclectic, belated and somewhat provincial reflection of Neo-Impressionism. This opinion was probably introduced to Italy in 1895 by Vittorio Pica, when, in the first major article written on the French movement, he clearly states French precedence in the technique without attempting to distinguish between French, Belgian and Italian versions of the style. This same attitude was repeated in later writings and taken up by far less authoritative critics than Pica. In 1891, Grubicy had suggested that the origins of Divisionism could be found in Rood's colour theories and in the late works of the Scapigliati. Morbelli and Pellizza also stressed the importance of their Lombard predecessors as well as earlier sources, probably in much the same way that the Neo-Impressionist sought 'respectable' antecedents such as in Murillo, Rubens and Delacroix. By 1896, however, Grubicy felt obliged to deny any influence from France:

To speak of precedence, of importation from this or that country is contrary to the truth. In fact, while the affirmation of the pointillists dates back only fifteen years, without mentioning the great past masters, we had Daniele Ranzoni in Milan who, from 1870 and even earlier, painted portraits according to the most rigorous (if intuitive) pointillist precepts, obtaining results of intense light, mobility and life.

Divisionism could not have evolved from Ranzoni and Fontanesi alone - there is no 'scientific' juxtaposition of colours in their works - and Grubicy had, in any case, stated earlier that the Neo-Impressionists in Paris had applied Rood's colour theories when no one was yet interested in the subject in Italy. Previati also stated that their 'starting point' had been 'knowledge of the artistic moment in which we are living, dominated that is by the movement begun in France by the luminists' (a common term in Belgium and Italy for Impressionist painters).

There are, however, few references to Neo-Impressionism in the Divisionists' writings and private correspondence and virtually no references to specific paintings. One must either believe in a nationalistic 'conspiracy of silence' or conclude that they knew very little of French precedents. Although anti-French feeling was strong in the 1890s, particularly under the governments of Crispi (which did little to facilitate the movement of avant-garde art between the two countries), the latter view is corroborated by the literary sources and by the visual evidence of the paintings. With the exception of Pellizza's Washing in the Sun, Divisionist paintings bear no relation to Neo-Impressionist ones beyond that which could have resulted from their familiarity with the same optical texts. A comparison with the Belgian Neo-Impressionists who had direct experience of French Neo-Impressionist paintings is enlightening. Moreover, a basic knowledge of Impressionism is a prerequisite for an understanding of Neo-Impressionism and this was almost totally absent in Italy in the formative years of Divisionism.

Optical Treatises: Theoretical Sources for Divisionism

Divisionism came to Italy in three ways: through treatises on optics and chromoluminarism, through Vittore Grubicy, and through established connections between Florence and Paris. Of the treatises used by the Neo-Impressionists, Rood's Modern Chromatics, translated into Italian in the early 1880s, was the most important for the Divisionists. Many of them, and Previati in particular, stressed the importance of Mile in their conversion to Divisionism, but since Mile's rather inaccessible treatise was quoted by Rood, they may not have known the original work. Morbelli knew Chevreul's Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast (1839), and his Des Couleurs et de Leurs Applications aux Arts Industriels (1865). Grubicy knew the former through Calvi's commentary of 1842. Charles Blanc's Grammaire des Arts du Dessin (1867) was known to Morbelli and possibly to Pellizza who may have derived some of his ideas on the expression of line and colour from it. The book was widely used as a text in applied arts and crafts schools in Italy. Works by Brucke and Helmholtz were known only to the two theorists of Divisionism, Morbelli and Previati. These were combined with some specifically Italian texts: Leonardo's Treatise on Painting (probably also studied by the French Neo-Impressionist pioneer Georges Seurat), G. Bellotti's Luce e Colori (1886), and L. Guaita's La Scienza dei Colori (1893) are variously cited. Charles Henry's theories of the expressive qualities of line and colour, so important for Seurat, were known to Morbelli and may have influenced Pellizza who, by 1900, felt that he had established some laws about the lines, forms and colours in his work and the emotional effect he wished to arouse in the observer. Unconvincing attempts have been made to suggest that Segantini used the Golden Section in his work as early as 1886. When A. P. Quinsac examined Pellizza's work in relation to the Golden Section and Henry's Aesthetic Protractor, she found no evidence that he applied mathematical formulae to his work. (See also: Section d'Or [French for Golden Section], the French avant-garde group associated with Cubism.)

The Divisionists' interest in optical treatises varied from painter to painter. By 1892 Previati had translated Vibert's The Science of Painting of 1891, and he wrote a Note on the Technique of Painting in 1895-6 which remained unpublished. His chief work, Principi scientifici del Divisionismo: La Tecnica della Pittura, was published in 1906, well after the height of Divisionism, and was more important in the development of the young Futurists. Morbelli had begun playing around with painting techniques before 1888 and was probably relatively well read in optics by 1894 when he began writing to Pellizza on the subject. His bibliography of optical and aesthetic texts is impressive but, since it was compiled shortly before his death in 1919, it gives no useful indication as to when he read the texts concerned. Segantini rarely made statements on technical matters, though very vociferous as far as pictorial content was concerned. Pellizza read Rood's Modern Chromatics in January, 1895, three years after he began painting in the Divisionist technique. Only Grubicy seems to have known Feneon's authoritative accounts of Neo-Impressionism, published in the Belgian periodical L'Art Moderne in 1886 and 1887.

The Role of Grubicy

Grubicy's importance in introducing the technique is confirmed by Longoni, Previati and Pellizza who, although not directly influenced by Grubicy himself, wrote to him in 1907, 'From Cremona to Segantini, Previati, Morbelli and myself, and generally to all those who have come into contact with you, all must have felt the influence of your persuasive force.' In autumn 1886, Grubicy is said to have persuaded Segantini to paint a second version of his Ave Maria a Trasbordo, using 'divided' colours. In fact, Millet's pastel technique is probably more relevant (again introduced to Segantini by Grubicy), but there are some traces of complementary colours (red and green) superimposed in the strip of land in the background. Grubicy's habit of reworking his own canvases makes it virtually impossible to ascertain exactly when he began using the technique, but he did note that he lightened his palette and used purer colours on his return from Holland in 1885.

Grubicy's knowledge of Neo-Impressionism depends more on his contacts with the Low Countries than with France. From 1882 to 1885 he lived in Holland, moving to Antwerp in spring 1885 and returning there late that year or early in 1886 as Italian delegate for sales at the International Exhibition. He could, therefore, have seen the Les Vingt exhibitions in Brussels where many of his Dutch friends, such as Josef Maris, Isaac Israels and H.W.Mesdag, exhibited. Segantini exhibited there in 1890. There is no evidence, however, that Grubicy saw Les Vingt Exhibitions between 1887 and 1893 when Neo-Impressionist works were shown. He did follow events in Belgium: in 1898 he wrote to Octave Maus, secretary of the Libre Esthetique where Grubicy was to exhibit the following year, that he was 'exactly familiar with your aesthetic ideas, the work of Les Vingt, of Art Moderne and the Libre Esthetique'. It was in L'Art Moderne that Grubicy first encountered the term 'Neo-Impressionist' in Feneon's 'Le Neo-Impressionnisme' of May 1887 and he used the term himself in an article in La Riforma in August that year. Two earlier articles in L'Art Moderne - 'L'Impressionnisme aux Tuileries' of September 1886 and 'La Grande Jatte' of February 1887 - combined to give an accurate account of Neo-Impressionist developments in France at that stage, although the periodical was not illustrated and Grubicy could not have benefited from the numerous references to specific Neo-Impressionist paintings.

Grubicy's knowledge of Impressionism was also largely dependent on L'Art Moderne. His spring tours in Europe, from 1871 to 1882, included Paris and he estimated that he absorbed about twenty thousand contemporary works of art per year, but he was primarily concerned with Salon painting and no specific references to Impressionist exhibitions or paintings occur in his writings. In 1896, he did refer to having seen a work by Alfred Sisley and, since the first Sisley was exhibited in Italy in 1903, he must have seen it elsewhere, probably in Paris in 1889, rather than at Les Vingt where Sisleys were shown in 1890 and 1891. His definition of Sisley as 'one of the most acclaimed pointillists in Paris' is obviously inaccurate but, given the context - a comparison with a work by Fontanesi - the reference to Sisley is quite apposite and it seems unlikely that he confused Sisley and Seurat, as has been suggested.

Grubicy was in Paris in May and June 1889 to cover the Exposition Universelle for La Riforma. He was too early to see Neo-Impressionist works at the Salon des Independants, but, at the end of May or in early June, the Groupe Impressionniste et Synthetiste opened at the Cafe Volpini in front of the press pavilion of the Champ de Mars. The fact that he listed Gauguin, then totally unheard of in Italy, alongside Puvis de Chavannes, E.J.Laurent, G.F.Watts and Leon Frederic in his account of Ideist art in 1891, is striking, but could have been derived from L'Art Moderne, for Gauguin exhibited at Les Vingt that year. The prompt adoption of the term 'Ideism' itself, and Grubicy's insistence that Previati should exhibit Motherhood at the Salon de la Rose + Croix in 1892, suggest that he tried to keep up with developments in French painting. Symbolist concepts are, however, more easily conveyed by literature then Neo-Impressionist ones, which require direct, pictorial experience; even black-and-white photographs, had they circulated, would not have proved very informative. Yet, in all his writings, the only Neo-Impressionist work specifically named by Grubicy is E.J. Laurent's The Young Poet Watches His Youth Pass By, which he saw at the Villa Medici in Rome in 1891 and noted that it was done in 'divided colour'. Laurent had studied with Seurat and Aman-Jean at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but his own version of Neo-Impressionism was much closer to the work of Symbolists such as Henri Martin, Seon, Le Sidaner or Aman-Jean himself than to Seurat or Signac.

Macchiaioli and Impressionism

Florence was the only city in Italy with any longstanding established ties with Paris in the latter half of the 19th century. The art movement known as the Macchiaioli was active in Tuscany (1855-80). Artists used macchie (patches) of colour and strong tonal contrasts to capture light and atmosphere in their landscapes, studies for which were frequently executed en plein-air. Many of the Macchiaioli painters went to Paris up until the late 1870s, but their appreciation of French painting was mostly confined to Jean-Francois Millet and other members of the Barbizon School of landscape painting. Their enthusiasm was shared by the Divisionists themselves. Pellizza was entirely taken up with the Barbizon painters and Bastien-Lepage, for instance, when he visited Paris in late 1889.

The Impressionist paintings of Monet and Renoir came as a complete surprise to him on a second visit to Paris in 1900. If Morbelli did visit Paris in the 1880s, his reaction would probably have been very much the same. When Diego Martelli, critic and friend of the Macchiaioli, travelled to Paris in 1878, he wrote that Zandomeneghi's Impressionist-inspired Moulin de la Galette (1878, Private Collection, Milan) belonged to 'a new kind of painting whose concept and aim those at home cannot comprehend'. In fact, when Martelli persuaded Camille Pissarro to show two works in Florence in 1878 and Manet to show one in 1880, they were met with almost total incomprehension by his Macchiaioli friends who found them lacking in form and sentiment. Of the Impressionists themselves, only Degas possessed any lasting ties (family contacts) with Italy; he visited relatives in Florence during the late 1850s and mid-1870s, where he met numerous members of the Macchiaioli. He remained close to D. Martelli and to three artists who moved to Paris - G. De Nittis, Boldini and Zandomeneghi - and who were associated, in varying degrees, with the Impressionists. However, they rarely exhibited in Italy, and contacts with the Florentine ambiance ceased after Martelli's death in 1896.

Italian Impressionists

When Pellizza wrote in 1892 that he wanted to go to Florence, 'now that the Impressionists exhibit principally in that town alone, he was not referring to Pissarro or Manet but to a group of Tuscan 'Impressionists', mostly pupils of Giovanni Fattori, who exhibited at the Florentine Promotrici from 1890 to 1892. The role played by this group in the origins of Divisionism has yet to be precisely revealed, mainly because of the absence of dated works from the crucial 1890-2 period. From catalogues and contemporary accounts, however, it is known to have consisted of Enrico Banti (1867-99); Leonetto Cappiello (1875-1942); Arturo Ghezzani (1865-92); Edoardo Gordigiani (1866-1961); Giorgio Kienerk (1869-1948); Giovanni Lessi (1852-1922); Alfredo Muller (1869-1940); Plinio Nomellini; Feruccio Pagni (1866-1936); Giacomo Salmon; Angelo Torchi (1856-1915); Ulvi Liegi (1868-1939) and, later, Guglielmo Micheli (1868-1926) and Mario Puccini (1868-1920).

Fattori did not approve and warned his pupils that 'history will classify you as the servile followers of Pissarro, Manet, etc. and, finally of Sig. Muller.'

Two other contemporaries, Mario Tinti and Anthony De Witt, testified to the importance of Muller's brief sojourn in Florence. He had travelled to Paris in 1888 to study with Francois Flameng and Carolus-Duran; by the time he returned to Florence towards the end of 1890, he had come into contact with the Impressionists. According to Muller, these included Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne and the dealer, Ambroise Vollard. He certainly knew Zandomeneghi by 1895, but some of these friendships must date from a second stay in Paris from around 1892 to 1914. None of the works shown by Muller at the Florentine Promotrici of 1890-1 and 1891-2 have been traced, but one, a Light Interior, demonstrated a 'profound research into light with particular attention to reflected shadows, confirming Fattori's opinion of Muller as the leading painter of 'blue shadows and orange-blossom light'. Two other works showed Japonism influence, then all the rage in Paris. Referring to the 1891-2 exhibition, one critic noted an advance in their handling of light and now termed the group 'Vibrationists', perhaps deriving the name from Muller's Vibrations in White, Yellow and Blue, shown the year before. He noted that, while they expressed light and atmosphere in terms of colour rather than form, they now believed that 'it was not possible to reproduce the vibrations of colour by mixing them but rather by superimposing them'. Virtually all these works have yet to emerge from private collections but Giorgio Kienerk's On the Banks of the Arno, dated 1891, identifiable with the Arno, Summer Morning shown in Florence in 1890-1, demonstrates affinities with the flickering brushstroke of Pissarro or Sisley and pure colours are juxtaposed in an area to the left. Two other dated works, Trees Overlooking the Sea (1891), and San Martino d'Albaro (1892) (both Private Collection, Pisa), are executed in a Divisionist technique and are immediate responses to nature, without the composition, reflection and emphasis on content so typical of the northern Divisionists.

Kienerk is not known to have travelled to Paris at this time but others of the group did: Torchi was there about 1890-1 and painted Divisionist works on his return; Ulvi Liegi was there several times between 1889 and 1895; Gordigiani spent the summers of 1886-93 there. Liegi and Gordigiani are said to have established contacts with the Impressionists but the latter specifically disclaimed any knowledge of Seurat's work at the time. The young dilettante, Egisto Fabbri Junior (1866-1933), travelled with Gordigiani and Muller to Paris in the late 1880s when he began buying work by Cezanne and eventually had 21 pieces in his collection. Gustavo Sforni, a Florentine dealer and painter advised by Muller and Gordigiani, also had two Cezannes in his collection at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Nomellini never mentioned having visited Paris, though many critics have assumed it, but he did move to Genoa in 1890 where he painted with Kiernerk and another young artist, possibly Muller. An early Divisionist work, The Gulf of Genoa, demonstrates an empirical approach towards the technique, comparable with that of Kienerk or Torchi, and in no way implies direct experience of Neo-Impressionist paintings. Pellizza visited Nomellini in Genoa late in 1890, in May 1891 and late in 1892. Convinced by Nomellini of the merits of Divisionism, Pellizza wrote to him in May 1891, 'I hold it to be a perfectly correct principle that pure colours applied to the painting give greater luminosity and brilliance. I have not noticed whether applied in little dots or fine lines etc. I have proved it by experiment.' Thus influence from Florence travelled north.

The Vibrationists derived more from late Impressionism, combined with an 'unscientific' awareness of the division of colour, than from Neo-Impressionism. Deprived of the presence of Muller and Nomellini it was short-lived, and many of the artists drifted back into less radical developments of the Macchiaiolo tradition. In Florence, they had been sustained only by Silvestro Lega, Telemaco Signorini and Diego Martelli, who did what he could to defend their 'yellow risottos'. Zandomeneghi had told Martelli of Neo-Impressionist developments in France by 1888, so he was forewarned. Pellizza was to lament the critic's death in 1896 as the loss of an influential potential supporter of the Divisionist cause.

Articles and Exhibitions

Martelli's conference on Impressionism, published in 1880 but with a limited circulation, remained the most reliable account of the group in Italian until Pica's Gli Impressionisti Francesi of 1908. Pica's Impressionisti, Divisionisti e Sintetisti of 1895 was the first attempt in Italy to discuss Neo-Impressionism and its protagonists in any great detail. Influenced by his own predilection for Symbolism, he could not resist criticizing their over-dependence on science and a certain lack of 'finish'. His judgments on Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin were hardly enlightened, but the article remains an isolated yet admirable attempt to discuss Post-Impressionist painting in Italy, especially since it was included in a review of the Venice Biennale of 1895, where no such works were exhibited. Pica's own knowledge of Neo-Impressionism stemmed from some years spent in Paris. He knew Morbelli, Pellizza and Segantini, but since their acquaintance dates from the mid 1890s, he cannot be regarded as a primary source of Divisionism. It was followed in 1896 by E. A. Marescotti's article, 'Symbolism in Painting', which touched upon Symbolist aspects of Neo-Impressionism (placing Seon above Seurat).

Pica had done an excellent job in introducing avant-garde European graphics to Italy with his articles in Emporium from 1896 to 1898, published as a book in 1904. Easily transported, adapted and reproduced, they penetrated Italy far more rapidly than their equivalents in the fine arts. Major graphic exhibitions were held in Venice in 1901 and in Rome and Turin in 1902. Pica had little luck, however, in persuading the Venice Biennale to exhibit Impressionist or Post-Impressionist works: two Monets and a Renoir were shown there in 1897; a few works by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley appeared in 1903 and 1905; a Renoir retrospective was held in 1910, but it was not until 1920 that a major Post-Impressionist exhibition, including Neo-Impressionist works by Angrand, Cross, Luce, Seurat and Signac, was held. Only Symbolist Neo-Impressionist works by Henri Martin and Le Sidaner had been seen in the early years of the Biennale. Other exhibitions came far too late to have influenced Divisionism: Ardengo Soffici organized an Impressionist/Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Florentine Lyceum in 1910; Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works were shown in Rome at the International Exhibition of 1911, and in 1913 when the Galerie Bernheim Jeune lent an important collection to the Secession; this was followed in 1914 by exhibitions of Matisse and Cezanne and, in 1915, by a selection of Post-Impressionist graphics from the Richter collection in Dresden.

In its early years, the Biennale steered a conservative course between Salon painting, a generic sort of Impressionism (Scottish and Scandinavian painters being particularly popular), and the Symbolist/Idealist currents which then dominated Europe. Of the latter, Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism were initially the most important in Italy. Giovanni Costa's Roman exhibiting society, In Arte Libertas, founded in 1886, with which Grubicy, Morbelli and later Pellizza had contacts, promoted Pre-Raphaelite art. D'Annunzio led a parallel movement in literature. Although very few Pre-Raphaelite works had been seen in Italy before the first Biennale of 1895, the traditional cultural and political ties between England and Italy and the amount of space devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites in periodicals from the mid-1880s meant that they were the strongest single foreign influence on Italian art in the 1890s. The influence of William Holman Hunt as well as Edward Burne-Jones, and and G.F.Watts can be found in Divisionist painting although, again, only Grubicy had any direct experience of their work, having seen exhibitions at the New and Grosvenor Galleries in London in 1888. All professed sincere admiration for Quattrocento painters. All were profoundly influenced by Ruskin's moral and aesthetic ideas which were widely reported in Italian journals, such as Emporium or Marzocco, to which many Divisionists subscribed, and Ruskin may, in some cases, have influenced their technique. In turn, Segantini exhibited several times in England and the Divisionists were more widely reported in the English art press than any other Italian artists.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when French Post-Impressionist art was making unofficial inroads into Germany thanks to Meier-Graefe and Count Kessler, the influence of the German Secessions swept Italy. In 1916, Boccioni lamented that, 'In Italy, Lenbach was and is more famous than Manet. Hans Thoma more than Pissarro, Max Liebermann more than Renoir. Max Klinger more than Gauguin, Joseph Sattler more than Degas, etc., not to mention Cezanne; finally, the Austrian Gustav Klimt was considered an aristocratic innovator of style. Segantini, on the other hand, was far more famous in Germany in those years than any of the French artists mentioned. Assisted by their contacts with Gerolamo Cairati, the Italian representative at Munich exhibitions, the Divisionists exhibited at the Glaspalast, at the Secession and throughout Germany, with great success. Segantini was particularly renowned; he had works in many German museums, received many gold medals, had collections of works in the Munich Secession and Vienna Secession exhibitions respectively in 1896 and 1898, and became a member of the latter. He also corresponded with artists from the Berlin Secession, such as Max Liebermann, Bruno and Paul Cassirer.

If the climate in Italy was dominated in the early twentieth century by Jugendstil and Secession, it did not prevent several young artists from being drawn to Paris: Carlo Carra and Giacomo Balla in 1900; Soffici from 1900 to 1907; Umberto Boccioni, Severini, Lorenzo Viani and Modigliani in 1906; Gino Rossi and Arturo Martini in 1907, and many others. Some of these artists - like Boccioni, Carra or Soffici - would be responsible not only for the critical appreciation of the Divisionists' contribution to modern art but also for a reassessment of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in Italy at the end of the first decade of this century.

Italian Divisionist paintings can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from Sandra Berresford's article on Italian Divisionism, published in Post-Impressionism (1979), the catalogue to the 1979-80 exhibition at the Royal Academy, London.

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