by Roderick Conway Morris

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Private Collection
Reading by the Sea by Vittorio Corcos, c.1910

A Reassessment of Corcos, Sensuality and Subtlety Intact

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA, ITALY 8 October 2014


The Jewish community of the Tuscan seaport of Livorno produced two notable artists whose lives spanned the 19th and 20th centuries: Vittorio Corcos and Amedeo Modigliani.

Corcos enjoyed a long and prosperous international career, dying at the age of 74 in 1933. Modigliani struggled to sell his work and died little known at the age of 35 in 1920.

But whereas Modigliani is now one of the most famous of 20th-century artists, Corcos, outside of Italy at least, is virtually forgotten. One reason is that Corcos's uninspiringly conventional society and royal portraits have obscured the fact that he also produced some genuinely idiosyncratic images.


The last retrospective devoted to Corcos was staged in his birthplace in 1997 and briefly traveled on to Florence. Now, the Palazzo Zabarella in Padua is staging a reassessment of Corcos. Curated by Ilaria Taddei, Fernando Mazzocca and Carlo Sisi, the show, 'Corcos: Dreams of the Belle époque' (through Dec. 14), contains more than 100 works, 27 of which are being shown publicly for the first time. Eighteen more have not been exhibited for at least half a century.

Like many other boys born to patriotic Italian families in 1859, Vittorio owed his name to the triumph of Victor Emmanuel II and his French allies over the Austrian occupiers of northern Italy in the Second Italian War of Independence. Livorno was the only Italian town with a Jewish population that had never been confined to a ghetto but, along with their co-religionists in other parts of the peninsula, they saw in the expulsion of foreign autocrats and the reunification of Italy the key to their full, long-term emancipation.

Vittorio, a naturally gifted artist, was admitted at 16 directly into the second year of Florence's Accademia di Belle Arti. Two years later, financed by a grant from his hometown, he went on to Naples, where he was taken under the wing of the city's leading artist, Domenico Morelli, who opened up to the young painter new literary and musical vistas. In 1880, the purchase of one of Corcos's pictures by King Umberto I supplied just enough cash for him to make the journey to Paris.

The first two rooms on the ground floor of the exhibition offer a tour d'horizon of the first two decades or so of Corcos's career and the various genres he essayed: from portraits, including one of his wife, Emma, as well as those of a number of Italian writers, artists and intellectuals, to Parisian streets and parks, and coastal scenes in France and Tuscany.

Among the portraits are those of Giosuè Carducci, the poet and first Italian Nobel Prize winner, the critic Enrico Panzacchi, Augusto Vecchi, who wrote maritime stories under the name 'Jack La Bolina,' the journalist Pietro Coccoluto Ferrigni, who signed himself 'Yorick,' the painters Francesco Gioli and Silvestro Lega, and the influential Jewish publisher Emilio Treves.

Corcos demonstrated an early mastery in rendering fabrics and flesh tones, his technique becoming increasingly refined so that some of his later portraits take on an almost photographic quality.

On arriving in Paris, Corcos went to introduce himself to Giuseppe De Nittis who, along with Giovanni Boldini, was the most successful of the Italian artists that had migrated to Paris. Corcos's reception was aided by the fact that the gourmet De Nittis mistakenly thought that he had seen him at a splendid lunch in Naples the year before. De Nittis held a regular salon, to which the younger artist was now invited, enabling him to meet Degas, Manet, Caillebotte, Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt and other leading artistic figures of the day.

De Nittis's influence on Corcos is evident in a number of the canvases in the first section on the first floor of the palazzo: 'In Paris: Painting Modern Life.' In fact, two of these canvases — 'Tranquil Hours,' of a mother reading on a park bench, and a fashionably dressed 'Woman with a Dog' — later had their original signatures painted out and replaced with that of De Nittis to increase their value, but have now been restored to their true author.

Through De Nittis, Corcos was introduced to the Maison Goupil, founded in 1829 by Adolphe Goupil and the German art dealer Joseph Henry Rittner. This highly commercial operation became Goupil, Vibert & Cie during the 1840s, opened branches in London and New York, and marketed pictures and prints calculated to appeal to the bourgeoisie and the new moneyed classes.

Decorative portraits of enticing young women was one of Goupil's principal lines, and Corcos's technical skills in reproducing luxurious women's fashions and the milky-white and subtly blushing complexions of the young ladies wearing them made him an ideal supplier. There are over a dozen examples of these gift-wrapped young women on display, with such titles as 'Une élégante,' 'Girl in White,' 'Young Woman Walking in the Bois de Boulogne' and 'The Modern Virgin.'

Corcos was also adept at infusing these paintings with a fresh-faced sexuality without exceeding the bounds of bourgeois decorum, and Goupil admiringly described him as a painter who was 'chastely impure.'

Corcos signed a contract with Goupil, which relieved him of financial concerns, and he continued to supply the gallery with pictures long after he returned to Italy in 1886 and opened a studio in Florence. Meanwhile, Corcos became increasingly in demand as a painter of portraits of aristocratic and haute-bourgeois Italian women — a score of which are on show in a section called 'The Triumph of the Fashionable Portrait.'

Yet during the last decade of the 19th and first of the 20th centuries, Corcos intermittently produced some unusual images of dangerously independent women that now constitute the most distinctive of his works. The first of these, 'Dreams,' which was an instant succès de scandale when it was first exhibited in Florence in 1896, features a young woman, casually posed in advanced, loose-fitting dress, sitting on a bench beside a pile of well-thumbed 'yellow books' (almost certainly of a risqué variety), who fixes the viewer with an enigmatic, sphinx-like gaze.

Even more challengingwas his 'Magdalen' for the modern age — a veritable femme fatale, standing in a sculptor's studio at the foot of a marble statue of the crucified Christ, dressed in a high-collared, tight-waisted black dress, with her hand on one hip and a unwavering look that suggests a defiant air of self-possession and unrepentance. This was followed in 1899 by another flame-haired vamp, the 'Morfinomane,' a sister picture to Giovanni Boldini's daringly sexy portrait of 'Lady Colin Campbell' of 1894, but with the added implications of narcotic-fueled hedonism.

Regrettably, Corcos's canvas, now in a private collection in the United States, is absent from the current exhibition. But the show does provide the chance to see the most suggestive of all these pictures, from around 1910: the innocuously titled but broodingly sensual 'Reading by the Sea.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024