Sardinia 1826 — 1903 Milan
Zeuxis and the Maidens of Croton
pencil underdrawing, pen & purple ink, brush & watercolor. 33/4 x 73/8" (97 x 188 mm). inscribed on the verso: con la letter Pagliani 19 luglio 1887
This amusing watercolor relates to 2 known paintings of the subject by the artist, one of which from 1889 is conserved in the Civic Gallery of Modern Art in Milan, the most important city collection of modern art in Italy. Neither painted version is exactly like this drawing in that the figures are in slightly different positions, background elements are changed, and each has alternative spatial relationships. If we take into account the inscription on the verso that this watercolor was included with a letter, we could posit that it is a variant of the artist's painted inventions of which he was proud and amused enough to send to a worthy friend in France. It is an enchanting small work and reveals not only the artist's fluid draftsmanship, but also his engaging if baudy humour.
The painter Zeuxis is commissioned to paint the most beautiful woman in the world, and to do so he collects all the most beautiful women of Croton in the same place. Each of them has a different aspect that is the most beautiful, whether it's a part of the body or a particular type of glow. To paint the most beautiful woman in the world, then, Zeuxis synthesizes these individual beauties into one supreme figure. In the drawing he's contemplating the maidens of Croton so that he can do just that.1
One of Italy's Romantic School painters, Pagliani had also been an activist and fighter for the Risorgimento. He depicted battles of that revolution, including ones in which he had fought. An agonizingly romantic scene of The Death of Tintoretto's Daughter by Pagliani was oft exhibited and resides in the collection of the Arte Moderne in Milan.2
I am grateful to William Breazeale for information about the subject matter.
See Roberta Olson, Ottocento: Romanticism and Revolution in 19th c. Italian Painting, 1992, New York and Florence, cat. 71,pp. 202-203, reproduced.