Giovanni Segantini (1858 - 1899)

Primavera sulle alpi – Springtime in the Alps

Canvas, 47 x 90 1/2 in.
116 x 227 cm.
Signed: GSegantini 1897

Provenance: Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Stern , San Francisco, 1897 (commissioned from the artist through the Munich dealer Tobias Rosenthal)
By descent to Madeleine Haas Russell
Literature: Letter from G.S. to Domenico Tumiati, dated Maloja, 5 May, 1898
P. Levi, “L’ultimo Segantini”, Rivista d`Italia, 15 Dec., 1899, p. 673
F. Servaes, Giovanni Segantini: sein Leben und sein Werk, Vienna, 1902, no. 120
B. Segantini, Giovanni Segantini, 1910, pp.99 and 137
G. Nicodemi, Giovanni Segantini, Milan, 1956, no. 133 illus.
F. Arcangeli and M.C. Gozzoli, L`opera completa di Segantini, Milan, 1973, p. 120 no. 376 illus.
A.-P. Quinsac, Segantini catalogo generale, Milan, 1982, vol. II, pp. 350-51, no. 34 illus.
A.-P. Quinsac, 30 anni di vita artistica europea nei carteggi inediti di Segantini e dei suoi mecenati, Oggono, 1985, pp. 421, 447, 461,466-7 and 516
G. Metkin, Giovanni Segantini 1858-1899, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zurich, 1990, p.45
V. Anker, Der Schwizer Symbolismus, 2009, pp. 282-3
Beat Stutzer, Apollo Magazine, April 2012, Spring in the Alps, p 36-40.
Munich, Internationale Kunstausstellung-Muncher Sezessione, 1897
St, Petersburg, Segantini, 1914
San Francisco, The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, July 1928-Sept.1999, loan
Manhattan, NY Cultural Center, Ottocento Paintings in American Coll., 1972-3, p. 105, no. 52 illus.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, and Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1979-80
Post-Impressionism, p. 250, no. 384
Varese ,Villa Minafoglio Litta Panza, Giovanni Segantini Luce e simbolo, Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection 2000-2001, no. XI, p. 72 and cover
Rovereto, Museo di Art Moderna e Contemporanea, Le Stanze dell’Arte, December 15, 2002-April 28, 2003, illus. p. 27, p. 527
Turin, Promotrice delle Belle Arti, 2004, Gli impressionisti e la neve, p. 122-3, cat. no. 51
Montreal, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Il Modo Italiano, 2006, cat. 306, illus. p. 115
London, The National Gallery, Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters, 1891-1910, June 18 - Sept. 7, 2008, cat. #4, ill. p. 65; Kunsthaus Zürich, Sept. 26, 2008 – January 11, 2009.
Riehen, Fondation Beyeler, Giovanni Segantini, p. 116-7, 168, January 17 – April 17, 2011
St. Moritz, Segantini Museum, Guest of Honour: Giovanni Segantini, Primavera sulle Alpi, June 4, - October 20, 2011
Giovanni Segantini was the leading figure of the Divisionist Movement in Italy in the last decade of the 19th century and by the late 1890’s his work enjoyed an international following. As Gabriella Belli notes, the Italian Divisionist Movement was a powerful phenomenon out of which emerged an artistic culture that laid the groundwork for Futurism and all modern Italian painting (G. Belli, Divisionismo Italiano, Milan, 1990, p. 15). The leading protagonists of the movement along with Segantini were Angelo Morbelli, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Gaetano Previati, Emilio Longoni and Carlo Fornata. While they worked in tandem, their methods remained for each artist highly empirical and individual. In the early years, the Divisionist painters centered their activities around Milan where most of the members had attended the Brera Academy. By the mid 1890’s, however, Segantini had moved his family to the Alpine village of Maloja. There are four distinct periods in Segantini’s work that correspond with geographical moves he made from Milan to Brianza to Savognino and ultimately, to Maloja. It was against this last Alpine backdrop that he painted many of his most important compositions.

Primavera sulle alpi was commissioned through the Munich dealer Tobias Rosenthal for Jacob Stern with the clause that it could be exhibited in the Sezession in Munich before being sent to America. Giovanni Segantini’s L’aratura, also depicting a plowing subject, had been exhibited extensively in London, Paris, Turin and Munich between the years 1888 and 1896, and may have been the inspiration for the commission. On 15 July 1897 Segantini wrote to Domenico Tumiati, “I am working on a very large canvas of plowing to represent the springtime in the Alps, replete with naturalistic symbolism” (quoted in F. Arcangeli, p. 120).

Working concurrently with the French Impressionists, although only vaguely aware of each other’s existence, the Divisionist group also promoted the primacy of light through the optical mixing of color in their paintings. According to Sandra Berresford “[the Divisionists] wanted to render all forms and effects of light as accurately as possible- pure light, partially absorbed light, reflected light and irradiation” (S. Berresford, “Divisionism: Its Origins, Its Aims and Its Relationships to French Post Impressionist Paintings”, London, Royal Academy, 1979, p. 219). Many in the group were familiar with O.N. Rood’s 1879 treatise “Modern Chromatics” which first formulated the principals of optical fusion, but it is the art dealer Vittore Grubicy who is credited with suggesting the technique to Segantini in 1886. Grubicy argued convincingly that “with Divisionism there arrived a way in which one could represent light and also everything that one saw and light had the power to create so many aspects of reality as to seem lavish…to marvelously exalt the suggestive value of pictorial artifice” (quoted in G. Belli, op. cit., p. 21). Segantini’s first purely Divisionist picture is widely heralded as Ave Maria a Trasbordo, 1886 (Quinsac, vol. 2, no. 506; coll. Otto Fischbacher Stift., S. Gallo) and from that time on Segantini employed a painterly technique that explored the principals of optical science in his work.

There were important differences between the French Pointillists and the Italian Divisionists in how they manifested the exploration of the effects of light in their painting and it is interesting to note that the two groups did not have an opportunity to directly study each other’s paintings until as late 1898 when some of the Divisionists were shown in Paris at the Exposition Internationale des Beaux-Arts. Whereas the leading French Pointillist Georges Seurat used little dots and short block-like brush strokes out of which he built up solid masses, Segantini’s Divisionism was based on a system of long strokes, or linear filaments, of contrasting color. Christian Brinton described Segantini’s method as one whereby “touches of pure paint were placed side by side on the canvas without prior mixing on the palette, thus allowing tones to recompose on the retina” (C. Brinton, Modern Artist, New York, 1908, p. 195). These small thread-like strands of pigment were stitched juxtaposingly to delineate each object and give the picture unity. According to Quinsac, “The Divisionist technique permitted Segantini to make material his vision of the sensual quality of nature…for him the knowledge of the optical properties of color helped him to develop a technique of filaments which he wove into forms in a rich impasto and full of tactile sensation, marvelously suited for the transcription of the rarified light of the Swiss Alps, but also for capturing the material landscape, the harshness of the rocks, the transparency of the water. The roughness of the skin of the animals, or the thinness of a blade of grass.”

Segantini made several drawings for Primavera sulle alpi which display the gradual construction of the composition to create the impression of immediacy in the final painting. The most complete drawing is in the collection of the Museo Segantini in Saint Moritz. In this work the sketch follows closely the composition of the larger oil painting, however, the treatment of the clouds has not been developed nor has the foreground and midground been resolved. Indeed, in this drawing, the depiction of the geographical topography differs widely from the oil. A second drawing shows Segantini working with the pictorial details of the composition, representing what appears to be a cow in place of the dog in the right of the final composition. A third drawing serves as a diagrammatic program to specify where elements such as the forest treetops should be located.

In Segantini’s work naturalism and symbolism are inter-related. The Egandine landscape can be understood as symbolic of a pure and unspoiled world in which the transitory nature of the human condition is opposed to the eternal nature of mountains. Aurora Scotti-Tosini has pointed out, “Segantini pursued an art centered on the examination of nature, with effects of light that exalt humanity, non-religious feelings and existential situations” (A. Scotti-Tosini, ‘Divisionist Painting in Italy: Modern Chromatics and New Symbols’, Symbolist Europe, exh. cat. Montreal, 1995, p. 276). Like Jean-François Millet whose work was known to him through the monograph of Alfred Sensier, Segantini used the fieldworker as a symbol of lost innocence, with no social message intended. While many of the Divisionists such as Morbelli and Nomellini had been influenced by the beginnings of the Socialist political movement in Italy and sought to convey differing social meaning within the context of their work, Segantini became increasingly interested in using his art as a vehicle to promote a more spiritual message to his audience.

Primavera sulle alpi is a pantheistic work in which the woman and the horses stand as an allegory of the eternal return of life in the cycle of nature. With this work, Segantini describes the Alps bathed in the bright light of the height of the mid-day. The pure whites of the snow-capped mountains and the clouds contrast with the greens of the spring landscape and vibrant blues of the sky, giving a crystalline atmosphere to the picture which is characteristic of Segantini’s mature style. The premature death of the artist just two years after Primavera sulle alpi was painted cut short the life of an artist who deservedly stands amongst the greatest European artists of his generation.

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