“Vulgarity is often the daughter of poverty, and poverty has always been my closest relative,” Antonio Mancini once wrote. “Since I was a boy she took me by the hand and accompanied me from garret to garret to suffer all the sorrows of the world.” Despite crushing poverty and mental illness, Mancini rose to the heights of the late nineteenth-century art world, compelling fellow artist John Singer Sargent to call him the greatest living painter of the age. Sadly, after his death in 1930, Mancini again faded back into the shadows of art history, a name known only to specialists and loyal fans. Thanks to a recent gift of fifteen works by Mancini from the late Vance N. Jordan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mancini’s name is again in the spotlight in the exhibition Antonio Mancini: Nineteenth-Century Italian Master, curated by Ulrich W. Hiesinger, who also authored the catalogue. In his masterfully scholarly text, Hiesinger illustrates how Mancini never stopped being that poor boy surrounded by vulgarity and poverty, painting with sensitivity and insight images of other poor boys such as Boy with Toy Soldiers (above). The yearning in the eyes of Luigiello, one of Mancini’s favorite models and a true orphan from the streets of Mancini’s native Naples, represents the yearning found in all of Mancini’s works.
The Saltimbanco, 1877-78, Antonio Mancini (Italian, 1852–1930). Oil on canvas, 80 1/4 x 43 5/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Vance N. Jordan Collection, 2004
Luigiello appears again as the model for The Saltimbanco (above), in which the young boy poses as a performer in the circus, a common theme for Mancini. “A contrast is drawn between any illustion of glamour and the sober vision of a boy alone with his thoughts,” Hiesinger writes, “a hapless mannequin in a brightly patterned, ill-fitting, and tattered costume that bespeaks his general place in the world.” As Hiesinger also points out, The Saltimbanco stands in the pose of Christ as “the man of sorrows,” borrowing Christological typology for the suffering youth of Naples, which at this time is “an inescapable nexus of poverty, disease, unemployment, crime, corruption, and superstition.” And, yet, Mancini’s amazing artistic gift allows him to rise above this trap and travel to Paris, where he meets Degas and Sargent. Mancini’s shyness and social awkwardness hinder him in making contacts and sales. Later, disappointment over lack of success at exhibitions drives him back to the safety of Naples. Finally, in 1881, Mancini is committed to a mental hospital, where he remains for four months.
Self-Portrait (recto), c. 1880, Antonio Mancini (Italian, 1852–1930). Pastel on paper, 27 3/8 x 19 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Vance N. Jordan Collection, 2004
While in the hospital, Mancini paints a series of self-portraits in which he portrays himself with both ridicule and pity, posing with a basket on his head in one case. In the Self-Portrait above, painted the year before his stint in the hospital, Mancini places a straw hat on his head, tipping it back far enough to transform it into a halo and transforming himself from the starving artist into the suffering servant, martyred by others’ misunderstanding of his art. Through such transformations, Mancini adds “an imaginative dimension that underscores the visionary rather than realistic qualities of his work," Hiesinger believes. Every time that Mancini gains some small success, as when Sargent helps him obtain portrait commissions from American and British patrons, parasitic family members, including his father, take away all his money and possessions, forcing Mancini at one point to sell paintings just to purchase the paint and canvas to paint more.
Elizabeth and Charles Hedworth Williamson with Dog, 1901-02, Antonio Mancini (Italian, 1852–1930), Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 19 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Vance N. Jordan Collection, 2004
Despite all his sorrows, Mancini never loses his ability to see with the wondering eyes of a child, especially when painting children. His portrait of Elizabeth and Charles Hedworth Williamson with Dog (above) lacks the desperation of his paintings of street urchins, yet still captures the essence of youth wary of a world run by adults. Hiesinger explains the eccentric painting techniques Mancini develops at this stage as well, which only added to his reputation as “il pittore pazzo”—the crazy painter. Photographs capture Mancini painting using the graticola, a framed grid of his own devising that he’d place before both the subject and the canvas simultaneously, the marks of which can still be seen in some of the impasto, including that of the double portrait above. Looking to enhance the glittering effects of his painting, Mancini begins to insert shards of glass or mirrors, scraps of metal or foil, and even paint tube bits and wallpaper into the paint itself, which catch light in unusual ways and reinforce the physicality of the painting itself upon the viewer. Eyewitnesses describe Mancini’s brushwork as “intense—even harrowing,” as he lunged and pulled away from the canvas like a fencer.
Old Woman Drinking Tea, c. 1907, Antonio Mancini (Italian, 1852–1930). Oil on canvas, 29 x 23 ½ inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Vance N. Jordan Collection, 2004
In the 1920s, Mancini’s nephew Alfredo assumed guardianship of his uncle, bringing stability to his life, which led to accolades and fame in his native Italy. Just as he had come to terms with aging and death in Old Woman Drinking Tea (above), Mancini came to terms with death shortly before his own end in 1929 with the words, “The sun sets, man dies. It is right. But what a pity not to be able to paint any more.” The only place in the world Mancini felt at home was before an easel. The man who couldn’t carry on a basic conversation could expound endlessly and eloquently on his heroes Velazquez, Titian, and Rembrandt. Hiesinger explores Mancini’s madness (which he theorizes may have resulted from mercury poisoning in an attempt to treat Mancini’s venereal diseases) without making it the defining aspect of his art. It would have been easy to create a caricature of Mancini as an Italian Van Gogh, raging against the cruel world yet still magically creating works of art. In Hiesinger’s hands, Mancini emerges as a thoughtful, albeit tortured, yet endlessly creative painter who fought long odds and won, not only against poverty and illness while alive, but posthumously against the threat of erasure in art history. The “crazy painter” knew what he was doing even in the most turbulent times of his life when he stood before a canvas. As we stand before those same canvases today, we’d be crazy ourselves to deny it.
[Many thanks to the PMA for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to the exhibit Antonio Mancini: Nineteenth-Century Italian Master and the images from the show.]