The Jewish community of the Tuscan seaport of Livorno produced two notable artists whose lives spanned the 19th and 20th centuries: Vittorio Corcos and Amadeo Modigliani. Corcos enjoyed a long and prosperous 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.
Modigliani is now one of the most famous artists of the 20th century and Corcos, at least outside Italy, is best remembered for his rather conventional society and royal portraits, however the artist also produced some breathtakingly beautiful and idiosyncratic images. Alla fontana (Le due colombe) is one of these remarkable works. Currently, more and more attention is being paid to the artist, due in part to the 2014 at the Palazzo Zabarella in Padua, ‘Corcos: Dreams of the Belle Epoque’. The show included more than 100 works by the artist, 27 of which were shown publicly for the first time. Eighteen works in the show had not been exhibited for more than half a century.
Like many boys born to patriotic Italian families in 1859, Vittorio owned 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. Vittorio was a naturally gifted artist and at the age of sixteen was admitted directly into the second year at Florence’s Academia di Belle Arti. Two years later, with monies raised by the people of his hometown, the young artist moved on to Naples, where he studied with Domenico Morelli. In 1880, the purchase of one of Corcos’ pictures by King Umberto I provided him the necessary funds to make the essential journey to Paris.
Upon arriving in Paris, Corcos immediately introduced himself to Giuseppe de Nittis, who along with Giovanni Boldini, was the most successful Italian artist to relocate in Paris. At de Nittis’ salon, the young Corcos was introduced to Degas, Manet, Caillebotte, Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt along with many other leading artistic figures of fin-de-siècle Paris. De Nittis was also instrumental in introducing Corcos to the Maison Goupil. Corcos signed a contract with the French dealers which relieved him of all financial concerns, and he continued to supply Goupil with pictures even after his return to Italy. In the meantime, Corcos became increasingly in demand as a portrait painter.
Yet, during the last decade of the 19th century, Corcos intermittently produced some unusual images of dangerously independent women that are the most distinctive of his works. The first of these, Sogni (fig. 1), which was an instant succés de scandale when it was first exhibited in Florence in 1896, features a young woman, casually posed in a loose-fitting dress, sitting on a bench beside a well-thumbed stack of ‘yellow books’ who fixes the viewer with an enigmatic, sphinx-like gaze.
The model in Sogni is Elena Vecchi, the daughter of the artist’s friend Jack La Bolina, who was a naval officer and an author of adventure stories. She was also Corcos’s lover. Elena appears again in Alla fontana (Le due colombe). In the present painting, the model is not engaged in any particular activity – no books are piled at her side, her only accoutrement the white umbrella placed across her lap. She is depicted perched on the Lion Fountain of the Pitti Palace in Florence, which is in itself quite risqué as it is difficult to image how she would have managed to get up there alone. She does not appear to be interrupted or disturbed in any way – not even by the proximity of the white dove fluttering away from the fountain. She captures the viewer in her gaze, and apologizes for nothing. Her very demure white costume, broken only by her blue sash and scarf, is executed with all the dexterity of the master in his prime, and is a virtuoso performance based on the exploration of all the harmonic tones of white available on his palette. The irony of the choice of costume, her dress layered in white, white gloves and shoes, and her hat adorned with dove feathers which are a sign of purity, was probably not lost on his audience, all of whom were well aware of the notoriety generated by Sogni in the same year as well as the relationship between the model and the artist.
Corcos’ technical agility and masterful brushwork, as well as his ability to explore all the tones and harmonies of a single color bears some comparison to the work of the American artists John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Corcos and Sargent artists worked in Paris at the same time, and it is almost certain that Corcos would have met the American, who was also a compadre of Boldini and de Nittis in the French capital. Sargent’s Miss Elsie Palmer (fig. 2) executed in 1891, just five years earlier than Alla Fontana (Le due colombe), eerily presages the present work. The model is presented seated with her ankles crossed, dressed all in white and very pale pink, staring fixedly at the viewer. The background is completely neutral and as in the Corcos work, all attention is drawn to her enigmatic facial expression.