As a young man, Federico Zandomeneghi had been a loyal supporter of Garibaldi, but when he left Italy for Paris on June 2, 1874 he was never to return to the land of his birth. It was likely the critic Diego Martelli who encouraged the young artist to move to the French capital. Martelli had championed the Italian group of plein air painters known as the Macchiaioli who shared the same principles as the French Impressionists and his enthusiastic reporting on the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris certainly influenced the young Zandomeneghi to make the move to Paris. Martelli introduced 'Zando', as he was called by his French colleagues, to Edgar Degas and the two formed a fast friendship. It was Degas who invited the young Italian artist to exhibit in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Impressionist exhibitions of 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. Zando became the most modern of the triumvirate Diego Martelli labeled ‘The Italian Colony’ in Paris, the other two being Giuseppe de Nittis and Giovanni Boldini (A. Dumas, Degas and the Italians in Paris, exh. cat., Royal Scottish Academy, Glasgow, 2004, pp.19-20).
Initially Zando found it difficult to establish himself in the art market in Paris but he soon captured the attention of the powerful Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who sponsored three one-man shows for the artist in 1893, 1897 and 1903. In addition, Durand-Ruel handled the sale of almost all of his works from the period. Zando’s artistic life in Paris grew to be so prolific and profitable that he never returned to Italy, but instead became a fixture at the Café de Nouvelle-Athènes along with many of the city’s painters, writers and musicians.
Stylistically Zando’s Paris works owe their origins to Degas and Renoir and his choice of genre as subject matter, primarily of women and young girls absorbed in their daily activities, clearly demonstrates the influence of these Impressionist artists. Even in French circles Zando was considered more avant-garde than many of his contemporaries and it was his entries in the Fifth Impressionist exhibition held in April of 1880 that attracted enthusiastic commentary by two of the most important critics of the time, Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans (1848-1907) and Armand Silvestre (1837-1901). Both critics especially admired Zando’s realism, accuracy of characterization and attention to gesture. Huysmans commented on Zando’s painting of a mother and child stating, ‘It was done on the spot, executed with none of the grinning faces so dear to ordinary daubers of genre subjects…’ and as such he considered it one of the most impressive works in the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition (C. Moffet, The New Painting, Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco, 1986, p. 307).
While Zando’s working habits and compositional choices linked him to Degas and Renoir as well as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, his works are specific to him and his Italian heritage. Works like Conversazione interessante earned him the additional nickname of Le Venétian, stemming from his luminous yet subtle use of color which recalls the work of the Macchiaioli and points toward the Italian Divisionists and Symbolists Giuseppe Pelizza de Volpedo or Giovanni Segantini.
As stated above, Zandomeneghi’s paintings concentrate almost exclusively on the theme of women: as mothers, friends or solitary figures engaged in personal and private rituals such as combing their hair, arranging flowers or reading (figs. 1 and 2). These were subjects also treated by his friends and contemporaries, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir (fig. 3), Edgar Degas, (fig. 4) and Berthe Morisot. Although Zando’s treatment of these subjects shared some of the warmth and sympathy captured by Morisot in her treatment of women, his approach was for the most part different from that of his contemporaries: more introverted, brightly colored and much less detached than Degas, and less sensual and Rubensian than Renoir, the two artists to whom he is most often compared. As Piceni writes: ‘Zandomeneghi knows how to differentiate himself from his closest colleagues, Degas and Renoir, by surpassing the glossy and even fierce chronicle style of the first thanks to adding a warm and affectionate emotional involvement in the subject, and by transferring the deification of the ideal woman typical of the second in a more bourgeois reality interwoven with truth but able to transform a simple story in a tremor of poetry' (E. Piceni, op. cit.).
Formerly in the famed collections of Angelo Sommaruga and Enrico Piceni, Conversazione interessante demonstrates all the qualities for which Zandomeneghi is most highly prized: a delicacy of touch, an acute sense of observation which draws the viewer into the private world of women and a unique palette which brings the scene vibrantly to life. Its importance as a key work in the artist's oeuvre is noted by Francesca Dini, who writes: ‘Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation), the present composition is among the most famous works produced by the Venetian painter at the beginning of his relationship with Durand-Ruel. The brilliance and chromatic refinement of the composition are emphasized by the balance of the scene and the richness of the materials chosen for the dresses of two young women, who are wearing light shirts with wide sleeves 'double sboffo', very fashionable in the last decade of the century. The provenance of the painting is notable as it belonged, among others, to the greatest admirers and collectors of paintings by the artist' (F. Dini, Zandomeneghi, la vita e le opera, Florence, 1989, p. 425).
Mia Cinotti also pointed out this painting as one of Zandomeneghi’s most accomplished pictures, commenting in particular on the success of its composition: ‘…this composition, typical of the late style of the artist’s oeuvre, emphasizes the chatter between two women...' Painted in the same year of Lezione, the present canvas shows a more mixed technique even in the touches and 'streaks’, which aimed at a more defined and studied composition, which in the theme 'Conversation', the painter will not achieve again with such a great balance of motions and volumes vigorously given by the chiaroscuro' (M. Cinotti, Zandomeneghi, Busto Arsizio, 1960, p. 314).
In the present work, the focus on the two women is intense, conveying the emotional drama of an everyday encounter between two friends. Compositionally, the strong verticals on the right side of the picture cement the figures into the picture plane, while the interlacing of their arms, the contrasting illumination of their faces and the juxtaposition of their dresses fuse them into a unified whole. Few paintings in the artist’s oeuvre better demonstrate his ability to capture the smallest nuances of gesture; the curl of the fingers, the gentle craning of both girls’ necks and their carefully angled gazes brilliantly convey the intimate yet animated nature of their conversation which, despite the private nature of the scene, draws the viewer in not as a voyeur, but rather as a charmed spectator.
Edgar Degas, At the Milliner's, 1882. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain / De Agostini Picture Library / G. Nimatallah / Bridgeman Images.
Edgar Degas, The Milliners, c. 1898. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri / Bridgeman Images.
Pierre Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Two Girls, c. 1890-1892. Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images.
Federico Zandomenghi, La Lecture, Christie's, New York, 27 May 1998, lot 127.
Federico Zandomenghi, Colloquio al tavolino, private collection.