Compare the biographies of Vittorio Corcos (1859-1933) and Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), and a remarkable number of similarities become apparent. Both were born into Jewish families in the Italian port city of Livorno in the second half of the 19th century; both would settle — and artistically come of age — in Paris. Both would even excel at the same type of paintings: their provocative depictions of women.
Their reputations, however, have suffered widely different fates. Modigliani, who struggled to sell much work before his death at the age of 35, is today regarded as a master of Modernism. Corcos, by contrast, who enjoyed a long and prosperous international career, posthumously became a rather forgotten figure.
‘His reputation is on the rise again now, though,’ says Deborah Coy, head of Old Master Paintings at Christie’s in New York. ‘He produced some breathtakingly beautiful works.’
Following major Corcos exhibitions in Padua in 2014 and in Turin in 2019, one of his works, Alla fontana (Le due colombe), 1896, is offered for sale in European Art Part I on 15 October at Christie’s in New York.
Vittorio Corcos: celebrity portraitist
Corcos’s gifts were clear from an early age. At 16, he was admitted directly into the second year of Florence’s Academy of Fine Arts. When he was 21, the King of Italy, Umberto I, bought one of his paintings, and he was able to finance a move to Paris.
There, his compatriot and fellow painter Giuseppe de Nittis introduced him to Degas, Manet and Caillebotte. He exhibited regularly at the Salon and signed a contract with the eminent dealers at Maison Goupil, to whom he supplied work for many years — even after his return to Italy in 1886.
He went on to become a highly respected portraitist, counting Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Benito Mussolini and opera star Lina Cavalieri among his subjects. In Coy’s view, however, his portraits were relatively conventional offerings — and Corcos’s ‘best work’ was his turn-of-the-century imagery of ‘dangerously independent women’.
Alla fontana (Le due colombe) depicts one such female, perched confidently on the Lion Fountain outside Florence’s Pitti Palace. She captures the viewer in her gaze, unfazed by a dove fluttering from the left of the picture towards her.
The relationship between Corcos and the model for his painting, Elena, was anything but pure — as one journalist put it, the lady had ‘warm thoughts and troubled desires’
Bar a thin blue sash and scarf, her demure costume is all white. ‘Corcos executed it with the dexterity of a master in his prime,’ Coy says. ‘The dress is a virtuoso exploration of different, harmonious tones of white.’
In this respect, the picture invites comparison with paintings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, the latter’s Miss Elsie Palmer in particular. The work was executed just five years before Alla fontana (Le due colombe) and the sitter’s white dress shows the same gorgeous combination of tones of a single colour. (It’s possible that Corcos and Sargent had met in Paris through their mutual friend de Nittis, although no record exists.)
The model for Corcos’s painting, which translates as At the fountain (The two doves), was the artist’s lover, Elena. She holds an umbrella suggestively across her lap and wears a hat adorned with the feathers of a dove — the second of the two birds referenced in the title.
The dove is traditionally a symbol of purity, as is the colour white, and there was great irony in Corcos’s reliance on both in his picture of Elena. Earlier in 1896, he had caused something of a furore when he exhibited another picture of her, Sogni (Dreams), at Florence’s Festival of Arts and Flowers. In it, Elena again looks directly and self-assuredly at us, giving nothing away. Her cross-legged pose was deemed particularly indecorous.
The relationship between Corcos and Elena was anything but pure — as one journalist put it, the lady had ‘warm thoughts and troubled desires’.
‘The artist’s skill couldn’t be gainsaid, but Sogni made a lot of people uncomfortable,’ says Coy. ‘Viewers of Alla fontana (Le due colombe) would have been well aware of the notoriety generated by the earlier painting, and of the relationship between model and artist.’ (Sogni is, to this day, Corcos’s best-known painting and is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome.)
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Corcos’s technique is so refined that his paintings have an almost photographic quality. Yet Alla fontana (Le due colombe) is also imbued with a fin-de-siècle sensibility — the same kind of symbolism and mystery that was found in the writings of Italy’s so-called Decadent poets, such as Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Ultimately, Elena remains an enigma — unable to be pinned down, like the fluttering dove with which shares the picture.