The present picture, the whereabouts of which has been unknown since it's appearance in the 1900 Milan exhibition, is one of Morbelli's most important Divisionist works, painted at the height of his maturity. The Divisionist movement dominated Italian art at the end of the 19th Century and included, besides Morbelli, some of the greatest names in Italian painting of this period such as Segantini, Pellizza da Volpedo, and Vittore Grubicy.
According to Sandra Berresford (see the catalogue of exhibition Post-Impressionism, Royal Academy, London, 1979-80, p. 221) 'The Divisionist technique came to Italy in three ways: by means of optical treatises, through Vittore Grubicy and through long-standing connections between Florence and Paris'.
Sandra Berresford (op. cit., p. 222) continues 'The Divisionists interest in optical treatises varies from artist to artist ... Morbelli had begun experimenting in painting techniques before 1888 and was probably quite well read in optics by 1894 when he began corresponding with Pellizza da Volpedo on the subject'.
All the Divisionists were aware of the principle laid down by O. N. Rood in his Modern Chromatics of 1879, namely that two colours juxtaposed (or 'divided') rather than mixed on the palette, would fuse optically at a given distance, resulting in increased luminosity and a superior representation of natural light (S. Berresford, op. cit., p. 219).
Grubicy's influence on the Divisionists and knowledge of Impressionism was immense; he estimated that he absorbed twenty to thirty thousand contemporary works of art per year between 1871-1882. The Grubicy Gallery was founded in 1879 and 'all the Divisionists except Pellizza da Volpedo and Morbelli, who had independent means, came to have financial contacts with Vittore or Alberto Grubicy at some stage'. (S. Berresford, op cit., p. 219)
'Florence was the only Italian city to possess any long-standing ties with Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. The movement known as the Macchia flourished in Tuscany c.1856-80 ... Many of the Macchiaioli travelled to Paris up to the late 1870s, but their appreciation of French painting was generally limited to J. F. Millet, Courbet and the Barbizon School. Their enthusiasm was shared by the Scapigliati and later by the Divisionists themselves. Pellizza da Volpedo's attention was all for the Barbizon painters and Bastien-Lepage, for example, when he visited Paris in October 1889. The Impressionist works of Monet and Renoir came as a complete revelation to him on a second visit to Paris in 1900. If Morbelli did visit Paris in the 1880s, his reaction would have been very much the same.' (S. Berresford, op. cit., p. 223)
'Of the Impressionists themselves only Degas possessed any real ties with Italy; he visited relatives in Florence in 1857, 1858 and 1875, where he met many of the Macchiaioli.' (S. Berresford, op. cit., p. 223)
Fragilina was inspired by Edgar Degas' Répétition d'un ballet sur la scène (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and was probably known to him from an article by G. Moore, Degas: the painter of modern Life in the Magazine of Art, 1890, p. 420.
Fragilina was exhibited in the Quarta Esposizione Triennale di Milano, 1900 with, amongst others, In Risaia, (sold Sotheby's, New York, 24 May 1995, lot 206).
Lucini (Oct. 1900, op. cit.) notes that Morbelli was primarily concerned with Symbolism and Socialism. As with In Riaisa, where the artist portrays women who were actually from the Pavese region, he continues this verisimilitude in Fragilina by depicting a real dancer, not merely a model.
Giovanni Anzani suggests Morbelli's style is reflected in the exact way with which he pursues the development of the divisionist technique; so expressing social realism but tending to transfer the image in a poetic dimension together with a slight melancholic air. Here the artist captures with great sensitivity the dancer's solitude in the empty theatre and in the apparent indifference of the two male figures in the background.
In comparison to Degas' audacious Répétition d'un ballet sur la scène, Morbelli has simplified the scene, perhaps on the basis of his personal vision of the world and modernity. In Fragilina Morbelli creates instead a spatial composition, no doubt influenced by photography which was of fundamental importance to him.
The luminous atmosphere, with a calculated mixture of airy half-light heightened occasionally by sudden flashes of light, together with the vibration of the brush strokes separated in a myriad of small dots and slender threads of colour, accentuates the luminous amalgam of the dancer, transforming the silky white and the vapoured transparencies of the dress, the crimson tint of her face, and the light on her shoulders and arms. Thus the artist has defined, in a precise way, the truthfulness of the image.
The theatre can be identified by the neo-classical box and the intricate arrangement of the boards on the parquet floor as the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
We are grateful to Professor Giovanni Anzani for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
To be included in Professor Giovanni Anzani's forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Morbelli.