A detailed exploration of the iconographic representation of women in the collections of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (GAM) in Milan.

By Galleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Mary Magdalene as a Hermit (1833/1833) by Francesco HayezGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Penitent Mary Magdalene

Francesco Hayez had already explored the iconography of the penitent Mary Magdalene in the desert in an 1825 painting. Currently kept in a private collection, it was inspired by the 1796 sculpture of the same name by Antonio Canova. Now kept at the Palazzo Tursi in Genoa, this sculpture is considered to bean exemplary icon of Romantic artistry. Unlike the original and the marble version by Canova, the 1833 work sees the painter abandon his usual compositional structure and style, characterized by an elevated sensuality and realism, to achieve a more formal and expressive rigor that is academic in nature. The famous portrait artist and painter of historical scenes from 19th-century Milan outlines a minimalist landscape background,against which the cold, almost translucent silhouette of the solitary Mary Magdalene is painted.The soft grip of her hand on the cross, and a look that suggests a sense of melancholy and grief, symbolize the eternal conflict between religious vocation and earthly desires.

Detail of Mary Magdalene's hand and the skull: a symbol of the transience of human life.

Detail of the crucifix: a symbol of redemption and penance.

Christian Goddess, or the Angel of Life (1894/1894) by Giovanni SegantiniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

The Angel of Life (or Christian Goddess)

This imposing canvas—together with one of a pagan goddess—was commissioned by the banker Leopoldo Albini in around 1891. They were probably placed in a room in his luxurious home, before they were later loaned to the Segantini exhibition in Sforza Castle, in 1894. It was Albini who donated this piece to the GAM in 1918, in his will. The iconographic precursors to this unusual image have been identified in the Nordic theme of the "Madonna zum dürren Baum," or the tree in which the Virgin Mary sits with her child. It brings the theme of mystical motherhood together with a prefiguration of the Passion of Christ, symbolized by the bare, thorny branches. The 2 figures are idealized portraits of the family's nanny, Baba,and Segantini's son, Gottardo. The woman's pose, resting on branches as though she is an apparition rather than a body, is reminiscent of medieval and 14th-century depictions of the Madonna on a throne.This echoed stylistic elements brought back into fashion by the Pre-Raphaelites,a group of artists who were of great interest to Segantini. The landscape is also entirely Symbolist,overflowing with references to Japanese prints in the elegantly stylized branches of the birch tree and in the bird's-eye perspective. The canvas is set in a golden frame embellished with stylized ornamental motifs,which was probably designed by the artist himself.Some later versions of this painting, which are smaller in size, have been identified: one made with oil and gouache on paper (at the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) and 2 drawings(at the Segantini Museum in St. Moritz).

Pagan Goddess, or Goddess of Love (1894/1897) by Giovanni SegantiniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Pagan Goddess or Goddess of Love

Collector and stockbroker Leopoldo Albini commissioned this canvas together with The Angel of Life, presumably some time before 1891. The depiction of the female figure bears a resemblance to Venetian Renaissance examples, including the Venus of Dresden by Giorgione and Titian, and the Venus of Urbino,also by Titian. The current oval-shaped version of the painting is the result of subsequent reworkings of the first draft in 1894. Presented at Segantini's personal exhibition at Sforza Castle in that same year, Pagan Goddess was to bea companion piece to The Angel of Life, and the works are kept side by side in the museum's XXX room to this day.Both originally shared the same mountainous background landscape and shape,as can be seen in photographs from the time. Segantini later reworked the painting after some criticism: the female figure, who was initially nude, was deemed inappropriate.The artist therefore crafted the surrounding red drapery that covers her, blending with her thick blond hair, which also forms the floating figure's wings. An extended portion of the landscape was also covered with gold burnish,framing the image in its current oval shape.Finally, in the 1930s, the elaborate golden frame would be added on top of this layer of gold. Sold to the Alberto Grubicy Gallery by1899, the canvas later passed to Ercole Vaghi's collection and he donated it to the GAM in 1927.

Vestal Virgin (1818/1819) by Antonio CanovaGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Vestal Virgin

Starting with his bust of Clio or Calliope in 1811(at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier), Canova created his idealized head sculpture series in the second decade of the 19th century. Inspired by antiquity, and perhaps the idealization of existing female portraits,the heads are a depiction of beauty, with each expressing a different emotional nuance.  Their creation also required less commitment than full-length statues, and allowed him to manage requests from an almost limitless number of buyers: so much so that,after 1815, they served as gifts to the British, who had helped to recover the artworks of the Papal State taken by the French. In Vestal Virgin, Canova minimizes the details so as to focus on the relationship between the figure's perfect, hieratic face and the drapery. The subject was replicated in 3 marble works: one was sent to Frederick Webb in London in 1819 (today it is kept at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon); another was delivered to Paolo Marulli d’Ascoli in Naples in January 1822, and is today kept at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.This one was sold to the Milanese banker Luigi Uboldi in 1819. He left it to the Brera Academy in his will, which in turn sold it to the new GAM in 1902. 

Hebe (1796/1796) by Antonio CanovaGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano


This sculpture depicts Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera,as she serves nectar to the gods. Its beauty embodies the canonical ideals that experimentalists sought to capture between the 18th and 19th centuries: here the real face, the fluid lines of the garments that outline and caress her body,and the graceful gesture of her arm holding the amphora are in harmony with the elegant motion of this young woman, who almost seems to float. The pure white plaster cast from 1798 is considered to be one of the most singular works of Venice-based artist Antonio Canova. It was the original model for the statue and was used to make the first 2 marble figures.These are now kept at the National Gallery in Berlin and the Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg. The 2 other 1808 versions of Hebe (one in the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth House and the other at the Pinacoteca Comunale gallery in Forlì)are different mainly in their support structures, since the artificial cloud has been replaced with a simple tree trunk.

Detail of Hebe's face and her right hand holding an amphora full of divine nectar.

Detail of the left hand with the cup for pouring nectar.

The Reader (Clara) (1865 c.) by Federico FaruffiniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

The Reader (Clara)

This painting remained unknown for a long period of time: Faruffini never exhibited it during his lifetime, nor did he mention it in his correspondence, as though it belonged exclusively to his private life. The date of its creation is also uncertain, due to the lack of documentation from the time. However, based on the recurrence of certain female subjects in the artist's works, it can be placed somewhere around 1865. This is the date that appears on an etching entitled Clara, which, despite being reproduced on the reverse side with slight variations, bears an extraordinary resemblance to the painting. The woman depicted is inspired by a literary character named Clara from the novel "Fosca" by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1869), who"replaces the flower in the glass every day." The image has a modern appearance, thanks to the close-up view, which is almost photographic in style, and the open-minded and refined subject: Clara is pictured from behind, seated on a red couch reading a book, in front of a table full of scattered volumes.Between her fingers, she holds a lit cigarette. The pictorial style alternates between Romantic influences, such as the bohemian setting of the living room, and new influences from the Milanese Scapigliatura movement: the delicate hint of her complexion, a feature retained from the Romantic tradition, is transformed through quick, confident uses of color in this still-life depiction, with the books resting on the desk and the pansy in the glass of water.

La leggitrice (Girl Reading) (1864/1864) by Pietro MagniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

The Reading Girl

This piece depicts a girl reading,captured within the intimacy of a peaceful domestic setting on an old-fashioned chair. The sculpture clearly evokes the model created byFrancesco Hayez, taking the strongly accented naturalism of Vincenzo Vela'sMorning Prayer (which this work seems to echo) to an extreme. This work represents one of the most significant moments in the Lombard figurative evolution of the 19th century, distancing itself from the academic style to develop a new language: the lexicon of a new generation of artists and of a sculptural school—the so-called Milan School, to which Pietro Magni was a key contributor. It was presented for the first time at the annual Brera Exhibition in 1856, along with the more ambitious and lauded piece, Socrates, and went mostly unnoticed as a result.The more progressive Milan-based critics came out against it, led by Rovani, harshly criticizing the passive reinterpretation of Hayez' model and its overly faithful recreation. However, it was met with surprising success 5 years later at the first National Exhibition of Florence in 1861. There, the artist presented a different version with an effigy of Garibaldi around the girl's neck and a poem dedicated to the hero written on the volume she is holding. The hugely successful, award-winning piece was purchased by the Ministry of Education, which sent it to Turin. It also asked the artist to create a number of replicas, one of which was donated to the Brera Academy, and another of which was sent to London in 1862, before finally joining the collection of theNational Gallery of Art in Washington after a series of handovers. Magni did his best to meet the extraordinary demand he received for commissions, based on the unexpected success of the work at exhibitions. It was displayed at a number of major events of this kind,including in Paris in 1867, Vienna in 1873, Santiago in Chile in 1875,and Philadelphia in 1876. 

Detail of the book and the medallion, depicted using hyper-realistic sculptural techniques.

Detail of the wicker braiding on the chair and the hand resting on the knee.

The Two Mothers (1889/1889) by Giovanni SegantiniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

The Two Mothers

Presented at the inaugural Triennale di Milano exhibition in 1891, alongside Maternity by Gaetano Previati, The Two Mothers is one ofSegantini's most celebrated and talked-about works, which firmly established the revolutionary new technique known as Divisionism. This genre scene, which is traditional only in appearance, represents the first step in Segantini's progression towards a so-called "painting of ideas." The woman with the baby, and the cow with her calf, are elevated to serve as universal symbols of motherhood. The studied effect of artificial light, shown in the rendering of the lantern-lit stable, gives this humble scene an intensity that could only be achieved with the Divisionist technique. Inspired by a profound and sincere sense of rigorously objective and impartial observation (influenced by the Italian "verismo" movement), this naturalism is captured through thread-like brushstrokes of divided color, with pure color applied directly to the canvas.Meanwhile, a more traditional technique can be seen in the earthy tones. The final effect is a work whose meaning goes beyond the surface of reality, aspiring to represent a universal image of the origins of life.

Madonna of the Lilies (1893/1894) by Gaetano PreviatiGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Madonna of the Lilies

This piece by Gaetano Previati (originally entitledMadonna) was exhibited at the second Brera Triennale in 1894 as a manifesto of the new Symbolist language that the Ferrara-born painter discovered during his trip to France, in1892. Here, however, the tone is more markedly Catholic than in the idealized, spiritual celebration of this theme in Maternity, the controversial canvas presented at the inaugural Triennale in 1891. The work portrays a heavenly vision of the Madonna with the Baby Jesus in a field of lilies. The disciplined Divisionist techniques are given new religious and spiritual values, inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, as can be seen in the vibrant splashes of color that surround the Virgin's head like a halo. While the brushstrokes of the floral background are vertical, the Virgin's garment is rendered with a contrasting horizontal hatching effect to delineate her figure. 

Girl in White (1885/1885) by Daniele RanzoniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Girl in White

In this painting, one of Ranzoni's last works,the prevailing uniformity in the use of color and intonation does not detract from the quality of the piece, but rather enhances its tonal variations. It is a painting of light and exceptionally fine textures, as though a filter has been applied to soften the contours,without the emerging figure losing any of its solidity. However, the intriguing element that has long dominated readings of this work is its bohemian feel. The painting belonged to the art critic Margherita Sarfatti, who described it as follows: "Also from that year is this delicate and ethereal portrait of a young girl, from the Sarfatti collection. Painted in white-gray and gray-black hues, this large, trembling image of a feverish young girl,who died of consumption shortly afterward, depicts her already almost lifeless. Yet it is not gloomy—dreamy and delicate,she has the appearance of a blonde queen from a fairytale; an exquisite, beloved girl from a dream."

Blond Braid (1891 c.) by Giovanni BoldiniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Blond Braid

Based on its messy, impulsive style, this work is generally dated to the beginning of the 1890s,by which point Boldini had already moved to Paris.The faintness of the strokes reveals not only the influence ofImpressionist painting of the time, but an in-depth knowledge of Frans Hal's chiaroscuro technique.It seems that Boldini may have become close with him during a trip to Amsterdam in 1876. Unlike many of the artist's female portraits, in which the entire figure is used to showcase every detail of the protagonists' elegant and elaborate dresses, this painting only shows the figure's bust. The oval face of the girl, whose identity is not known,stands out with the pink hues of her full-bodied complexion.The background and her clothes fall away: the first into earthy shades in long, soft strokes of color; the second into pearly, almost transparent brushstrokes. Other interesting elements of color include the woman's reddish-blond hair, from which the painting takes its name, and the bouquet of small white flowers that can be seen behind her. The exquisite and aristocratic feminine elegance with which the artist portrays his subject draws parallels with the most renowned high-society portrait artists around the world, including European and American painters such as John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler,Giuseppe De Nittis, Max Liebermann, Franz von Lenbach, and many more.

Detail of the gloved hand holding the fan.

Femme aux pompons (Woman with Pompoms) (1880/1881) by Giuseppe De NittisGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

The Woman with Pom-Poms

De Nittis made a significant contribution to the Impressionists' revival of pastel painting.In this work, he handles the technique with great confidence and demonstrates the influence of Japanese prints, with the flat central character standing out against the distant background, saturated with light.There are brief hints of passing figures, a stylistic form that also features in his oil paintings from that time, such asA Day of Snow, Woman with a Veil, and At the Lake, which are kept at thePinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis gallery in Barletta. The seductive female figure is depicted with meticulous definition, paying special attention to the rustling dress that shrouds her slender figure, and the enigmatic expression on her face, which is hidden by her veil. The work once belonged to the publisher Angelo Sommaruga, before being transferred to the Grassi Collection in 1934. It was put on display for the first time in the 1881 pastel exhibition at the Cercle de l'Union Artistique art society, on the Place Vendôme in Paris.It has therefore been dated to just before this initial exhibition, with opinions varying between 1880 and 1881, based on its stylistic features.

The mermaid-style wrap dress that outlines the figure, her gloved hand, and the umbrella are all depicted in black.

American Lady (Young American Woman) (1900 - 1903 c.) by Giovanni BoldiniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

American Lady

Giovanni Boldini, from Ferrara in Italy, had already won fame overseaswhen he arrived in New York on November 20, 1897. Warmly welcomed and celebrated in the elite social circles of the American capital,he showcased several important works in a gallery at No. 303 Fifth Avenue.They included portraits of Princess Poniatoski (an American by birth), Whistler, Mrs. Stanford White, Emiliana Concha de Ossa (the(the famous "Pastello Bianco" or "White Pastel"), and his pastel of Verdi. However, his stay there did not end well:he returned to Paris after contracting pneumonia. The large pastel painting found at the GAM was originally dated to the same period as his American trip,but later pushed back to between 1900–03 based on stylistic considerations. It depicts a young American lady, sitting on the type of couch that the artist frequently used for his posing models. Her face is the only well-defined feature, its coloring distinguishing it from the other elements in the composition. The figure's dress and bare arms are rendered by a few short strokes of black pastel, and the contours (particularly in the lower section) appear to have been multiplied in an attempt to create the illusion of movement and instability, capturing a cheerful moment buzzing with life.

Detail of the décolleté shoes.

Bambini e Fiori (o Anna e Lillo coi fiori) (1922/1922) by Armando SpadiniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Detail of the freshly cut flowers and the 2 brothers' intertwined hands.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (My Mother) (1907) by Umberto BoccioniGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Portrait of the Artist's Mother

This painting was produced by Umberto Boccioni in 1907,in Padua, when the artist joined his mother and sister who were staying there.He remained there until April of the same year, when he moved to Venice.The artist completed 2 other pieces during his time in Padua: his portrait of Virgilio Brocchi, and another of the painter Adriana Bisi Fabbri. Their photographic style,borrowed from the teachings of Giacomo Balla, and their unusual composition (Boccioni's subjects are depicted to one side of a horizontal canvas)are similar to that of the canvas found at the GAM. The stylistic approaches of the 3 paintings are different:the portrait of his cousin Adriana Bisi Fabbri, painted outdoors, relies on the Divisionist approach (again influenced by Balla, an artist from Rome); the other 2 more closely resemble European portraiture,based on popular models from France, Monaco, and northern Europe. In fact, both the portrait of the artist's mother and the portrait of Virgilio Brocchi depict the figures, captured indoors, with loose brushstrokes in the post-Impressionist style. Boccioni assimilated this artistic language on his travels and during his visits to the Venice Biennale.

Bambina x balcone (Girl Running on the Balcony) (1912) by Giacomo BallaGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Girl Running on a Balcony

This piece, along with Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash and The Hand of the Violinist, forms part of a trilogy of works that, during the course of 1912, marked Giacomo Balla's turn towards Futurism. The painting depicts his eldest daughter Luce as she runs along the balcony of the Balla home on Via Parioli (today known as Via Paisiello). It underwent a long elaborative process that started in the summer of 1912—as evidenced by the child's light dress and the many studies the artist left behind, one of which is kept in the museum. It took until the end of that year or early 1913, and was exhibited for the first time at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome that February. The research carried outover those months focused on the study of movement, in particular "organic motion," or the rendering of bodily movement—a particular kind of motion involving the reaction and contraction of the muscles. Girl Running on a Balcony was painted on a recycled canvas, the other side of which bears a rural landscape dating from 1896 or 1897. Balla was clearly aware of Étienne-Jules Marey's and Eadweard Muybridge's use of chronophotography, and the experimentation of Anton Giulio Bragaglia: the feeling of movement is captured through the child's sequential steps, produced by the figure's repetition from left to right and the interpenetration of the railing—the only environmental element—in between. The short brushstrokes allow the artist to move beyond the contour lines, so that the rendering of the figure is only complete when the different colors come together. 

Brushstroke detail, applied in pure color tones.

Tête de femme (La Mediterranée) (1957/1957) by Pablo PicassoGalleria d'Arte Moderna - Milano

Credits: Story

The GAM in Milan would like to thank the Google Cultural Institute for the fruitful collaboration between them on this project. We believe that the use of high-definition artworks, which are freely accessible to a global audience, is the next frontier in Web 2.0 communication. Special thanks go to Executive Assistant Dr. Ilaria Gozzi, who supervised each step of the project, and to Ms. Marivanna Torre, responsible for external relations. Particular thanks also go to Dr. Omar Cucciniello and Dr. Alessandro Oldani, curators of the GAM.

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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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