1823 Naples 1901

Self Portrait

131/4 x 101/8" (335 x 255mm). oil on linen. inscribed u/r by the son-in-law of the artist, Paolo Vetri, also a painter: questo dipinto e di Dom. Morelli - P. Vetri.

private collection, NY.

This superb and newly identified self-portrait, a rare early one, reveals the intensity of the young artist. His face largely cast in deep shadow, it depicts Morelli most likely in his 30's and thus dating from the 1850's. In a work of 1855, Bodies of Christian Matyrs Carried by Angels,1 the same dramatic chiaroscuro is found in the faces of the female martyr, the supporting angel below the male martyr, and especially in the angel at the left of the composition.

The beautifully effective use of dry impasto is in part densely rich yet sometimes the loaded brush misses the canvas. Such is the case in a detail of Il bagno Pompeiano2 dated 1861 which also depicts heavily shaded faces. These same qualities are found again in Wife of Potifarre3 of 1864, and in Torquato Tasso Reading Gerusalem Liberata to Eleonara d'Este of 1865 - still showing in the mid 60's the use of dry impasto and faces partly in shadow.

A self-portrait,4 ca. 1875-80, show the artist significantly older though still with a head of unruly thick black hair and dense black beard. This time however, the artist's head is thrown back and his eyes confront us. The work is to me far less soulful and Romantic than the present ealier work and the technique is considerably looser, almost Impressionistic. Still eloquent this work shows the artist in his 50's. The same furrowed brow does not appear worse for wear, perhaps because now the artist paints his face in a golden light with soft shadows. Equally revealing but now of an accomplished character, this painting is part of the Uffizi's extraordinary collection of self-portraits.

Morelli, unlike any other Italian painter of his day, enjoyed an international reputation.
He and his friend Filippo Palizzi were the leading figures in Neapolitan painting in the second half of the Ottocento and Morelli was a major figure in the cultural as well as artistic life of all Italy. The subjects of his early works were drawn from medieval stories and from the works of the Romantic poets such as Byron. In Florence from the mid fifties, he participated in the Macchiaioli discussions on Realism and claimed that it was due to these discussions that his work became freer and experimental with color. During this period, he is part of the Realist school, indeed hailed as the national leader of the new school of Verisimo storico. Yet he became increasingly interested in quick, loose renderings and nuances of color. After 1857, upon returning to Naples, he promoted the liberal arts and was appointed consultant for acquisitions to the Capodimonte. In 1868 he became professor at his former school, now the Royal Institute of Fine Arts. His work concerned religious and mystical themes. He received such accolades as becoming President of the Royal Accademy and being knighted by the King. Interestingly, he designed the frescoes painted for the tomb of Giacomo Leopardi, in the church of San Vitale, and these were completed posthumously by his son-in-law, Paolo Vetri whose inscription appears at the top of the present work. In the late 60's, he abandoned historical subjects for religious ones, Christian and Islamic. In the 70's he spent a good deal of time in the country at Cava de'Tirreni, painting landscapes and spontaneous watercolors which are a poetic response to nature. He used these images in his later paintings in which the landscape is given a transcendental significance. His late works have philosophical overtones. Having helped found an arts and crafts school many years earlier, he became its artistic director in 1887. Previously director of the Scuole di Pittura di Figura e d'Ornamentazione, he became its president in 1899. At his death, the Italian state purchased all the works in his studio. Today these paintings, bozzetti, landscape sketches and more than 800 drawings and watercolors can be seen (hopefully) in Rome's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderne.5

In 2006, the first monographic exhibition devoted to Morelli under the guidance of Nicola Spinosa, was curated by Luisa Martorelli at Castello Sant'Elmo in Naples.6


In the Capodimonte, see Mortarelli, Domenico Morelli e il suo tempo, 1823 -1901 dal romanticismo al simbolismo, exhib. cat. published in 2005 by Electa Napoli, p. 40, cat. 7.


see Martorelli, op.cit.pp. 59-63, cat. 20. This painting is in the Fondazione Balzan, Milano.


Martorelli, op.cit. pp.66-67, cat. 23.


Martorelli, op.cit, p. 133, cat. # 59.


This information was directly taken from the Grove, Oxford Online Dictionary.


Martorelli, op.cit.