‘A deep reflection on life and death’

Specialist Martina Fusari on the power and skill of a canvas by the Divisionist painter Angelo Morbelli depicting old women in a Milan retirement home, to be offered in 19th Century European and Orientalist Art in London on 13 December

‘When you stand in front of this painting, you are captivated by the incredibly powerful atmosphere,’ says Martina Fusari, specialist in 19th-Century European Art, discussing Angelo Morbelli’s Vecchie Calzette — a work produced at the height of the artist’s career, and not seen on the market since 1906. 

One of a series of six canvases entitled The Poem of Old Age (Il Poema della Vecchiaia), Vecchie Calzette translates as ‘old socks’ — a phrase which, in Italian, explains Fusari, has a ‘double meaning’, referencing both the socks the women darn, and their psychological journey at the conclusion of their lives.

The painting was the result of quiet and sustained observation. ‘In 1901, Morbelli asked permission to set up his studio in the Pio Albergo Trivulzio, an old people’s home and hospital in Milan,’ continues Fusari. He spent nearly a year there, developing a great empathy with the residents he painted. 

Angelo Morbelli (Italian, 1854-1919), Vecchie Calzette. 24 ¼ x 39 ¼  in (61.6 x 99.7  cm). Sold for £341,000 on 13 December 2016 at Christie’s in London

Angelo Morbelli (Italian, 1854-1919), Vecchie Calzette. 24 ¼ x 39 ¼ in (61.6 x 99.7 cm). Sold for: £341,000 on 13 December 2016 at Christie’s in London

The subject, explains Fusari, was revolutionary: ‘Morbelli was one of the first Italian artists of his generation to present social themes in such a strong and powerful way.’ Loaded with symbolic and emotional meaning, Vecchie Calzette shows its subjects ‘lost in thought’, unaware of the viewer, in a space Fusari describes as ‘timeless’.

‘There is a musical component to it, a deep reflection on life and death, and on the vanity of life itself,’ adds the specialist, who describes Morbelli’s Divisionist technique — comparable in its use of dots of pure colour to Pointillism, yet distinct — as ‘revolutionary’. ‘It’s a very special work,’ she concludes. ‘This is what art should be. It should give emotions.’