Plein air. From Corot to Monet: The Macchiaioli (1855-70)

On the other side of the Alps, plein air painting was also establishing itself. While for many, a trip to Italy remained the crowning glory of a traditional artistic education, Paris was establishing itself as the art capital of Europe and was increasingly attracting Italian painters drawn to the City of Light. The Italian landscapist Serafino De Tivoli was a frequent visitor to the studios of Constant Troyon and Rosa Bonheur in Paris. On his return to Florence in 1856, he drew his friends' attention to the Barbizon school. The Tuscan city, which would soon become the short-lived capital of the Kingdom of Italy, attracted artists and intellectuals such as Gustave Moreau and James Tissot, and most notably Marcellin Desboutin and Edgar Degas. During a visit to Florence in 1858-59, the latter met several members of the Macchiaioli group.

At Caffè Michelangiolo (c. 1867) by Adriano CecioniMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

From the mid-1850s onwards, a group of innovative young artists met at Caffè Michelangiolo in Florence. As Adriano Cecioni recalled in 1905: "They spoke, discussed and agreed to go to the countryside to satisfy their passion for art with new studies and new research, always resolutely determined to be true, sincere and honest."

These meetings included the art critic and patron Diego Martelli, Telemaco Signorini, Odoardo Borrani, Giovanni Fattori, Serafino De Tivoli, Raffaello Sernesi, Vincenzo Cabianca, Giuseppe Abbati and Vito D'Ancona.

French Soldiers in 1859 (1859) by Giovanni FattoriMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The Macchiaioli were opposed to teaching which they deemed overly academic and advocated observation of the contemporary world. Like Camille Corot's Italian landscapes, their art was characterised by concise notation which highlighted the most vivid contrasts of light and shade.
They adopted the term "macchia" (spot), used against them by a critic from the "Gazzetta del Popolo" in 1862, and thus began to be referred to as the Macchiaioli.

Giovanni Fattori launched this way of working in 1859 by focusing on the bearings of the French soldiers who had come to support the conquest of Italian national unity.

The Artist Stanislao Pointeau (1862/1863) by Giuseppe AbbatiMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

In this work from the Istituto Matteucci, under the shelter of an arch that frames the landscape, Giuseppe Abbati depicts the slender silhouette of his friend, the painter Stanislao Pointeau, bent over a study.

The Tuscan countryside is evoked as a succession of bright spots that contrast with the foreground, steeped in shadow.

The two male figures are depicted as blocks of dark, solid colour, a cloth placed on their knees. Here, the tools of the plein air painter are at the geometric centre of the composition.

Woman Outdoors (1866) by Giovanni FattoriMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The refusal to produce a detailed drawing and the traces of visible brushstrokes aim to preserve the initial sensation of an artist discovering the quality of light of a site.

This small panel painting, which can be compared with the studies produced by Claude Monet in Trouville in 1870, testifies to the innovative approach of Fattori, one of the group's most famous artists.

Madame Martelli at Castiglioncello (1867) by Giovanni FattoriMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The art critic and patron Diego Martelli supported the Macchiaioli from the outset and frequently travelled between Florence and Paris, where he stayed several times. He was a friend of Degas, who left behind a tremendous portrait of him (1879, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland). In 1861, Martelli inherited a large estate in Castiglioncello, south of Livorno, where he invited artists to come and work. Telemaco Signorini and Giuseppe Abbati were, like Giovanni Fattori, seduced by the still-wild Tuscan coast.

Here, Fattori depicts Madame Martelli informally, among the trees on her property. The backdrop was not prepared; the veins of the wooden panel sit harmoniously alongside the portrait.

Red Cart in Castiglioncello (1866/1867) by Odoardo BorraniMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

As Beatrice Avanzi reminds us in the catalogue that accompanies this project, the paintings of the Macchiaioli group "are studies of light transcribed onto small panels, easily transportable and practical for instantly recording observations of nature. The use of small elongated panels – often cigar boxes – is characteristic of the first phase of the Macchia and plays a large part in evoking its poetic charm."

In this work from the Società di Belle Arti, the use of pure colour – the red of the cart and the blue of the sea – is highlighted by the clear spots of the rocks which catch the light.

Haystacks in Castiglioncello (c. 1865) by Raffaello SernesiMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

The Macchiaioli mainly painted the Tuscan countryside, notably in Piagentina south of Florence or, as is the case here, in Castiglioncello near Livorno. They often adopted an elongated panoramic format, particularly suited to landscape painting and to depicting vast horizons.

Here, the painter portrays a set of stacks in various forms which punctuate the horizontal composition.

Romito Peak seen from Castiglioncello (1864) by Raffaello SernesiMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

“The macchia was above all a study of light and, as such, it was inconceivable without direct contact with nature and full sunlight", recalls D. Durbè ("I Macchiaioli", 1976). The artist studied the effects of Mediterranean light on the seaside landscape in Castiglioncello. As in the previous paintings, he adopts a horizontal format...

...which gives this small work a sense of space and real room to breathe.

The Honeymoon (1862/1863) by Telemaco SignoriniMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Telemaco Signorini evoked everyday life near Piagentina, in the countryside on the banks of the Arno. A young couple, their bond strengthened by their joint contemplation of nature in harmony, fish here on the riverbank.

It is another aspect of the Macchiaioli movement that shines through here, that of intimate scenes which evoke simple and serene daily life. Again, we can see a preference for an elongated format.

A Spring Morning. The White Wall (c. 1866) by Telemaco SignoriniMusée des impressionnismes Giverny

Clearly, the Florentine painter is here evoking the rural lifestyle of his time, the simplicity of whitewashed buildings and farm horses harnessed to a modest cart.

But the true subject of the work is the brilliance of the Mediterranean light, interpreted here with a real scientific approach to colour. The artist modulates the variety of whites: bright in the sun, tinged with light greys in the shade. Light tones dominate, with the delicate blue of the sky and the depiction of the earth and its proliferation of different shades.

To enhance the brightness of his deliberately limited palette, the artist also exploits the contrast of light and dark by playing with the tones of the horses' coat and the farmer's outfit. The ensemble is enlivened by discreet touches of pure colour in red and green.

Credits: Story

The exhibition "Plein air. From Corot to Monet", curated by Marina Ferretti, Specialist in the Impressionist and post-Impressionist period, assisted by Vanessa Lecomte, Associate Curator at the musée des impressionnismes Giverny, was originally scheduled for 27 March to 28 June 2020 at the museum, but had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

James Bradburne, Giovanni Cerini, Laura Dinelli, Francesca Dini, Claudia Fulgheri, Silvia Fava, Francesca Godioli, Céline Guichard, Cesare Maiocchi, Elisabetta Matteucci, Giuliano Matteucci, Francesco Palminteri.

With the exceptional collaboration of the Istituto Matteucci, Viareggio, and of the Società di Belle Arti, Viareggio.

We invite you to explore the work published for the event by the musée des impressionnismes Giverny in conjunction with Éditions Gallimard, Paris.

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.
Explore more
Related theme
International Museum Day 2020
From iconic art to cutting-edge fashion, get a better appreciation and understanding of culture from around the world
View theme
Google apps