In the work above, Francesco Hayez has depicted himself surrounded by friends. On the left is the artists Pelagio Palagi, at the top, the artist Giovanni Migliara, and on the right, the painter Giuseppe Molteni, wearing a top hat, along with the writer and poet Tommaso Grossi, the only one with a bare head. In the foreground and at the centre of the scene, is Hayez. For some reason he has depicted himself as a somewhat unassuming person and yet there is an air of self-satisfaction about his facial expression. On his head is an artist’s peaked beret and he wears a pair of round glasses. This is the only portrait of him wearing spectacles. It is clear to see the background of the painting lies unfinished and yet it blends in with the material of the clothes the men are wearing and in a way it bonds together the group of friends. The unfinished background blends and merges with the material of their garments and unites the group of friends, and thus it presents the group of men with a feeling of intellectual brotherhood. Maybe the subject of the painting is not just portraits of a group of friends but more a symbol of friendship and belonging between them.
So why have I chosen to feature works by Francesco Hayez? Over the past few years of writing this blog I have featured paintings of many ladies. Some were pretty, some were plain, and laying myself open to be called un-gentlemanly, some were frankly, ugly! However, in a few cases I have fallen in love with the depicted beauty of a lady. A week ago I found myself falling for the haunting depiction of another woman! Before I identify my new love, I have to admit that I am not a lover of Modern Art and Modern Art Galleries tend to be well down my list of places to visit. Of course I am always willing to be converted or as was the case last week, during my stay in Verona, I was willing to be seduced to visit the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Achille Forti by their advertising posters, which were dotted around the city. On these large posters was the painting of a beautiful young woman. It was a haunting depiction and I knew I had to see the original. The work was entitled Meditazione (Meditation), and was completed by the nineteenth century Italian artist Francesco Hayez in 1851. The works of Hayez are not new to my blog as I have featured paintings by him on two other occasions, viz., his very famous The Kiss (My Daily Art Display Jan 6th 2011) and the Old Testament painting, Susanna at her Bath (My Daily Art Display Mar 27th 2012).
The painting, Meditazione, is housed in the Verona gallery is stunning. The sensuousness of the model is breathtaking. Is this just simply an erotic painting with little meaning? Of course it isn’t. To understand the depiction one needs to understand the history of the time and Hayez himself. The year 1848, three years before Hayez painted this work, was a year seething with revolutions in Europe. They began in France in the February of that year and soon spread throughout Europe. In total more than fifty countries were affected by uprisings. The reasons behind the revolutions were varied; dissatisfaction with the political leaders, people demanded a more democratic rule with more say on how the country should be run. The poor were fed up with their lot in life. In Italy it was also the desire for Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, and for the Milanese in particular, it was about freeing themselves from Austrian rule.
Milan, where Hayer was living, was a hotbed of unrest and it was there that the Cinque Giorante insurrections took place between March 18th and March 22nd 1848. News of the revolution in Vienna and the dismissal of the Austrian chancellor, Metternich had reached Milan on March 17th and this created much political exhilaration and fresh hopes for the future. A group of young republicans decided to coordinate a large demonstration calling for freedom of the press, the setting up of a civilian guard and the setting up of a new national assembly. On March 18th a crowd of ten thousand people assembled, some of them armed, in front of the town hall and quickly invaded the government palace, killing a guard and forcing the Vice-governor O’Donell to accept their political demands, most importantly, the formation of a civilian guard. The Austrian military leader, Marshal Radetzky, ordered his troops to recapture the government buildings, and an intense combat ensued. The insurrection spread spontaneously throughout Milan; the Milanese people erected hundreds of barricades in the narrow streets of Milan using carriages, pianos, and sofas, thus rendering the movement of the Austrian troops difficult. The combat was split into many isolated battles which was advantageous to the Milanese who were able to capture arms and ammunition from the enemy. While almost the entire Milanese society supported the revolt, the lower classes, artisans and workers, played the most significant role in the combat, but over four hundred of them lost their lives during those five bloody days. The First War of Italian Independence against Austria failed and it would take two further wars and another twenty-two years before Risorgimento was achieved. Hayez, who personally experienced the insurrections and was a great supporter of Italian unification, was disappointed when the First War of Independence came to nought and this probably was reflected in this painting.
The demeanour of the female in the painting is one of meditation. Thinking what could have been if the initial fight for independence had succeeded and downhearted about its failure. These were probably the thoughts of Hayez himself, who was fiercely patriotic. She sits on a leather-backed chair her head slightly lowered but she has a penetrating stare. The white dress has slipped from her right shoulder exposing her breast. She symbolizes the disappointment following the five day uprising and the war. On her lap is a book, the title of which we see on its spine, is The History of Italy. The title alone enshrines the hopes of the young people who had fought and in many cases died in the name of freedom and independence. In her left hand she holds a black wooden cross, symbolizing the martyrdom of the Milanese citizens who died opposing the Austrian troops. On the cross are carved the dates of the Cinque Giornate.
Hayez painted a number of versions of La Meditazione and the one above was completed by him in 1851 and it again depicts the dark-haired and pale-skinned young woman in plain dress. Her melancholic attitude is explicitly connected to the failed hopes of 1848 and the Cinque Giornati in Milan. This work of art was originally entitled Italia nel 1848 (Italy in 1848)
In 1842, he had completed a work entitled Melancholic Thoughts. Again it depicts a woman lost in thought and again we can tell by her facial expression that all is not well with her. Hayez is once again transferring to the woman his own melancholia with regards the failure of Italian unification. She is clearly expressing his pessimism.
One of Hayez favoured models was his girlfriend Carolina Zucchi. She posed for many of his famous works and in 1825, Hayez painted her portrait, Portrait of Carolina Zucchi, often termed la Malata or Sick Woman. Carolina Zucchi came from an educated middle class Milanese family and her father, a prosperous accountant, was part of a circle of intellectuals who would gather in the living rooms of various houses including the one at her family home. Hayez was often invited to attend these soirées and was introduced to many of the popular artists and musicians of the time, such as Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini who were regular visitors. Hayez’s depiction of Carolina is as a person who is unwell and has retired to her bed. It is a small (60cms x 50cms) intimate depiction of her posing on her bed in a simple white cotton nightdress with collar and cuffs decorated with a round of flounces. It is undone at the neck. Her dark hair is gathered at the back of her head with just a few curls hanging down over her ears almost touching her shoulders. The darkness of her hair is in stark contrast to the whiteness of her nightdress and the bedding. Although this work was given the title of la Malata, the sick person, this is more than just a depiction of a woman laid low with an illness, it is an intimate painting in which Hayez pays homage to the beauty of Carolina.
Hayez completed a number of history paintings some of which featured the Crusades and was a master of portraiture especially those of aristocratic ladies. One such lady was Clara Carrara Maffei. She was the daughter of Count Giovanni Battista Spinelli Carrara Clusone, a writer, dramatist and poet. At the age of seventeen she married a young poet, Andrea Maffei. Clara often held salons at their home and it became known as the Salotto Maffei, with Giuseppe Verdi being a regular caller. Clara and her husband would invite to these soirées the most popular composers, artists and writers of the time, such as Honoré de Balzac and Franz Liszt and one of the painters invited was Francesco Hayez. Clara, like Hayez, was pro-Risorgimento and these evenings were often populated by such like-minded people. Hayez was commissioned by Andrea to complete the portrait of his beloved wife Clara and this he completed in 1825.
Another portrait he painted was of Matilde Juva Branca, a famous singer. Her husband Giovanni Juva had commissioned the work in 1851 as a pendant of his own portrait which had been painted in the same year by one of Francesco Hayez’s students, Mauro Conconi. Hayez chose a neutral background from which Matilde’s dark silhouette emerges. She is depicted in three-quarter pose. Her demeanour is one of sober elegance and her face and white blouse stand out against the darker background. There is a touch of haughtiness about her facial expression. Matilde and her husband Giovanni often held soirées at their residence, at which artists, like Hayez and the literati would attend. Giuseppe Verdi, the composer and Alessandro Manzoni, the poet and novelist were frequent visitors to their salons.
Hayez had a penchant for painting semi-clothed females often with Oriental themes such as his series of odalisque paintings. Odalisque paintings were popular with many artists, such as Ingres and François Boucher. The word derives from the Turkish word odalik which translated means chambermaid but in fact an odalisque was a female slave in a Turkish harem. She was ranked below a concubine of the harem. In fact, she was the lowest of the low in the social order of a harem, but in time she could become a concubine herself. So low was her status that an odalık was rarely seen by the sultan but instead was under the direct management of the sultan’s mother. Depicting semi naked women by artists was frowned upon unless they could incorporate a historical or mythological connotation to the works of art and so the depiction of these women in a realistic harem setting seemed to make them acceptable!
Francesco Hayez was a wonderful artist who, amongst other things, took great pleasure in depicting female beauty in his works of art.