Searching for Light in Color: Segantini's "Spring in the Alps"

Explore Giovanni Segantini’s exceptional technique and painting practice through this dazzling panorama.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

One of Segantini's most celebrated pictures, Spring in the Alps was commissioned in 1897 for Jacob Stern, director of Levi Strauss & Co. and an art collector from San Francisco. In his short-lived career, Segantini was established as one of the most successful artists of his time.

Born in Arco, near Trento (in present-day Italy) in 1858, he began his apprenticeship as a painter in Milan, where he attended the Brera's Academy of Fine Arts. 

In the early 1880s, he began experimenting with plein-air (outdoor) painting, a technique he later refined after he moved to Switzerland. Segantini's landscapes attracted international attention and his views of the Alpine mountains were admired in exhibitions all over Europe.

Spring in the Alps (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Reawakening of Nature

This monumental canvas celebrates the grandeur of nature and the cycle of life.

Through its majestic view and minute details, the painting portrays the joyful moment of nature’s annual rebirth.

But for farmers, the arrival of spring also signals a return to hard work and weariness. Segantini encapsulated these feelings in the severe expression of the farm woman leading the two draught horses.

Segantini painted this landscape outdoors, taking the large canvas into the mountains to lay out the composition before finishing it in his studio.

Spring in the Alps offers a view of Val Bregaglia, a valley in southeastern Switzerland, where Segantini moved with his family in 1894.

Spring in the Alps (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This view includes the village of Soglio and Segantini's dog, Fez, on the right . . .

. . . and the high peaks of the Sciora Massif towering in the background.

Segantini manipulated the panorama by changing its perspective, adjusting the scale of the mountains and enlarging it horizontally for a panoramic view, similar to how you might use the camera on your phone today.

Spring in the Alps (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Rather than offering a faithful representation of the landscape, Segantini was interested in capturing the incredible vastness, clear brightness, and crystalline air that uniquely characterize high-altitude Alpine views.

Light, Air, and Color

To achieve these scenic effects, Segantini developed a very thorough and personal technique, which he described in letters to friends and colleagues.

"Se l'arte moderna avrà un carattere, sarà quello della ricerca della luce nel colore." ("If modern art will later be seen to have one defining property, it will be the search for light in color.")

—Segantini to Vittore Grubicy, his advisor and art dealer, letter dated 1887

Spring in the Alps, detail of imprimatura (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

To give depth to the colors and avoid reflections from the white canvas when painting outdoors, he first applied a red-brown base layer, called imprimatura, which is still visible on the edges of the painting. 

Spring in the Alps, detail of brushstrokes (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Then he meticulously applied the paint using a variety of both thin and thick brushes to create strokes that juxtapose vivid colors . . .

Spring in the Alps, detail with sky and mountains (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

. . . often using contrasting hues, which appear separate up close but when viewed from afar mix to create the effect of brilliant light. 

"The purer the colors put on the canvas will be, the better they will lead the painting towards light, air, and truth.”

—Segantini to his friend Carlo Orsi, letter dated 1896

Spring in the Alps, detail of gold (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

To enhance the luminous coloring of the painting, Segantini added gold, mixing both leaf and gold powder into the paint. The metallic pigment emphasizes the vibrant light of the alpine scenery and its shimmering mountain peaks.

Spring in the Alps (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Methodically applied side by side, layer by layer, the thin linear brushstrokes create a thick and tactile texture.

Spring in the Alps, detail with raking light (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This is clearly visible when examining the canvas with raking light, light cast at an angle, to illuminate surface features. The overall effect is that of a tapestry composed of countless interwoven threads.

Spring in the Alps (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The concerted vertical and horizontal brushstrokes animate the painting and direct the viewer's eye across the space: down the green hills and along the furrows of the ploughed field . . . 

 . . . and up the highest mountain crests and the parallel lines of the ultramarine sky.

Spring in the Alps (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Segantini carefully chose and custom-made all aspects of this artwork. 

He selected the pigments and a large canvas for the painting and he personally designed its mounting.

Spring in the Alps (Back) (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The artist conceived this system of curved stretcher bars (seen on the outer edges) with a slightly bowed cross-member (up the middle). 
This specialized construction minimizes contact with the canvas and protects its surface from damage over time.

Spring in the Alps (1897) by Giovanni SegantiniThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Segantini was greatly concerned with the care and future of his painting, which he proudly described as "the most beautiful of my works." 

After his death, Spring in the Alps quickly became one of the artist's most popular masterpieces, a testament to his ability to awe crowds through his unique style and unconventional technique.

Credits: Story

©2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles.

For more on Segantini's Spring in the Alps, see the following resources:

Director's Choice: Getty Museum Acquisitions 2019 on Google Arts and Culture.
Explore the painting with curator Davide Gasparotto on Facebook

To cite these texts, please use: “Searching for Light in Color: Segantini's Spring in the Alps” published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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