Giovanni Battista Crema was born in Ferrara in 1883 into a well-off family of solicitors. In order that the boy could follow in the footsteps of his family he was steered towards the study of Classics, however his father soon noticed the boy’s love of painting and when he was fourteen he sent him for drawing lessons from the master Angelo Longanesi. After two years of lessons, at the age of sixteen, Crema decided to move to Naples to enrol at the Accademia di Belle Arti.
At the Academy he had Domenico Morelli as a teacher who, together with Filippo Palazzi, started what was called the southern Italian school of painting. They taught the study from nature as a means of transferring feelings onto canvas. However this exercise was not a mere reproduction of nature but a profound meditation of the artist’s innermost thoughts, a reworking of their personal philosophy.
Crema stayed in Naples until 1901 and then he decided to go to the Accademia di Belle arti di Bologna where he was Domenico Ferri’s student. Two years later he and his mother moved to Rome, a very stimulating environment from an artistic point of view. In 1905 he made his appearance with the tryptic work “L’istoria dei ciechi dolorosa” (The Sorrowful Blind) at the Esposizione di Belle Arti at Rome that won him considerable acclaim both from the public and critics.
In 1906 Giovanni Battista Crema married Luisa Tucci, who he got to know at the academy at Naples and as well as working as an artist he also worked as a journalist on the Florentine magazine “Arte e Storia” and on some Ferrara newspapers. In 1907 he was given a room at the Esposizione di Belle Arti di Roma and he showed twelve paintings there and in 1909 he exhibited in Rimini where he won the silver medal and at the Donatelliana in Leghorn where he won the gold medal.
In 1910 he took part at the Buenos Aires Internazionale and in 1911 in Barcellona at the same show. In 1913 he was involved in working on the book “Leggende Romane” (Roman Legends) for which he produced twelve illustrations and an etching. With the outbreak of the First World War he was called up, and this experience left a deep mark on the artist’s mind. In fact when he exhibited at the Ferrara Esposizione d’Arte many of his works shown depicted events from the War.
In 1922 the artist was given a personal exhibition at Palazzo Crema, Ferrara, with thirty works on various themes on show. This exhibition was the city’s homage to one of their citizens and in 1927 the Banca Popolare di Ferrara purchased two works showing commercial and industrial work in the Ferrara district.
In 1928 he held another personal exhibition at the Villa Comunale in Naples. This show was very successful both with the public and critics. As a result Crema met with several requests from the growing circle of avant-garde artists to adopt the latest artistic styles. However he was unconvinced about abandoning his own style and from this time on he refused the many invitations to shows he could have taken part in and exhibited his works only if he was expressly invited.
During WWII Giovanni Battista Crema was enlisted with the Ministry of the Marines that gave him the task of illustrating scenes from military life. Once again the war was a very painful experience for him. At the end of the fighting in 1946 his wife Luisa died, right at a time that was already an unhappy one for the artist. In 1950 he agreed to be on the international panel of the Mostra Mondiale di Arte Sacra, Rome. In 1954 a monograph of his works was published by Editori Fratelli Palombi to mark 50 years of his career and a year later he was given a room in the Pinacoteca Civica, at Palazzo dei Diamant, Ferrara. In 1957 his son died and the artist’s grief made him withdraw from public life until his own death in Rome in 1964.
Written by: Cecilia Iacopetti – Translated by: Catherine Biggerstaff
© Studio d’Arte dell’800