The “Portrait of Benedetto Junk” was donated to the Turin civic collections in 1920 at the wishes of Benedetto Junk himself. Another important work by Cremona, “The Ivy” (1878), was added to the collections on that occasion, together with a charcoal drawing by his brother Enrico, also an accomplished painter and artist.
Tranquillo Cremona and Benedetto Junk had a relationship of mutual esteem and friendship, which was strengthened when young Benedetto, originally from Turin, came to Milan to begin his career as a composer. The musician’s house soon became a meeting place for the local artists and writers of the Scapigliato Lombardo movement, which followed in the footsteps of the French bohémiennes.
The painting has no date but recent studies tend to place it at around 1874, the year also given to Eugenio Gignous’ painting “Tranquillo Cremona painting portrait of Benedetto Junk” (1874, Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna). The young Gignous, who had recently finished his studies at the Brera Academy, began to frequent the Scapigliato group and portrayed his friend Cremona busily completing the musician’s portrait. Junk himself commissioned the work to Cremona, who painted a three-quarter length portrait, with the subject’s hand resting on the musical score as he stares intensely at the viewer. The figure stands out against an indeterminate background, and the brush strokes are rapid and vaporous, typical of Cremona’s work in those years, when the study of light and colour prevailed over the realism of the subject. This aspect had already been noted by critics since the end of the 1800s, and the portraits painted by Cremona in the early 1870s were described with the following words: “all have the same qualities characteristic of Cremona’s works, namely, vivid colours, abundant depth and great refinement; they are […] revelations of temperaments and characters”. Cremona began his artistic training in 1848 with Giacomo Trècourt in Pavia, where he came into contact with the painting of Pincio and of Federico Faruffini, his classmate. He then continued his studies in Venice and at the Brera Academy in Milan, where he studied under Bertini, and also inevitably came into contact with the work of Hayez. The free and colloquial language of this painting well reflects the climate of collaboration and artistic participation that stirred the ideals of the young Scapigliati Lombardi, of which Cremona was one of the main exponents. His painting is centred on a choice of subjects taken from daily life and portrayed using rarefied, evaporated lighting and atmospheres. Cremona, “poet of a delimited and reserved realty […] restored to the artist the role of free witness, away from the pressure of great commissions”.