Telemaco Signorini was born in 1835 into a well-off family in Florence. His father was a genre painter at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He studied at the Scolopi where he got to know Giosuè Carducci and Diego Martelli and showed a particular fondness for literature. Following the early death of his brother Egisto in 1851, his father encouraged Telemaco to study art and so the boy bagan to work in his father’s studio where he got to know Vincenzo Cabianca who had also moved to Florence so as to study art. At the same time he went to Gaetano Bianchi’s atelier where he made friends with Odoardo Borrani. In 1854 the three artists began to escape from the stuffiness of the atelier and went out to spend the day in the countryside around Florence to paint small paintings from real life.
On account of his father’s good position Telemaco was known both in aristocrat society and in middle class circles as well as those of the English community. It was mainly the latter who, in 1855, purchased his early historical genre paintings, a style that was very popular at this time. That same year he decided to leave home and began to go to the Caffè Michelangelo starting those famous regular meetings that mark the pages of the history of art.
In 1856, he made his firs trip to the north of Italy with Vito D’Ancona, visiting Bologna, Modena, Mantova, Verona, Vicenza, Venice and Milan. When he returned to Florence he produced the paintings “Il ponte della Pazienza” and “Casa Goldoni” painted with a clear and exaggerated use of chiaroscuro and he exhibited them at the Promotrice.
He went to the north of Italy again with his father in 1858 and on their return he stopped off at La Spezia. The works produced during this period in Liguria, for example, “Il merciaio di La Spezia” (The La Spezia Haberdasher), reflect an important stage in Telmaco’s career, also for the fundamental characteristics of what is known as the art of the Macchiaoli.
From 1859 to 1860 Signorini enlisted in Garibaldi’s artillery. During this period he produced numerous sketches and drawings illustrating those historical events and later these memories were transferred onto five canvases exhibited at the 1860 Florentine Promotrice. Later he went back to Milan and stopped again at La Spezia. This second visit is marked by the production of very important paintings such as, “Acquaiola a La Spezia” (Water Carrier at La Spezia) and “Pescivendole a Lerici nel golfo di La Spezia” (Fishmonger at Lerici in the Bay of La Spezia).
In 1861 Telemaco, Cristiano Banti and Vincenzo Cabianca left for Paris where Telemaco visited an exhibition of work by the Barbizon School artists and some ateliers such as that of Camille Corot. The summer of the same year he spent with Diego Martelli in his house at Castiglioncello. The surrounding unspoilt countryside of the splendid Tuscan coastline gave a decisive turn to his method of composing his paintings. An example of this is “I pascoli a Castiglioncello” (Pastures at Castiglioncello) – to cite just one example. During the ten years that followed we know that almost all the artists who met at the Caffè Michelangelo were regular guests at Martelli’s seaside home and that these visits, as well as the trips to the Piagentina, were magically prolific periods for them.
Following his father’s death in 1862 Signorini felt the need to paint on his home ground. He often met up with Silvestro Lega and together they went out into the countryside of the Piagentina at the entrance to Florence. The production of some of his most famous works such as “Sulle rive dell’Arno a primavera” (Spring on the Banks of the River Arno) and “I campagnoli in un giorno di festa” (A Day off for the Peasants) was the result of these excursions. In 1865 he painted “Sala delle agitate al S. Bonifazio in Firenze”, one of the artist’s most famous paintings that even Edgar Degas saw when he went to Florence in 1875.
“Sapete, secondo noi, l’arte grande qual’è? E’ quella che esige dall’artista non cultura storica né talento immaginativo, ma osservazione coscienziosa e esatta delle infinite forme e caratteri di questa natura, che vive contemporanea a noi” (Do you know what in our view is great art? It is not what historical culture or imaginative talent demand from the artist but a conscious and precise observation of the infinite forms and character of the countryside surrounding us). This is what Signorini wrote in the Gazzettino delle Arti e del Disegno the journal he and Diego Martelli planned and created in 1867. It became both a vehicle for criticism and promotion of art, being also the clear manifesto of the creative revolution of the Macchiaoli.
The 70’s marked Signorini’s popularity and reputation and he often travelled abroad to take part in international exhibitions. In 1870 he was appointed a member of the panel at the Esposizione Nazionale di Parma and won a prize at the Concorso di Paesaggio in Florence for his painting “Novembre”. The following year he visited Naples and in 1872 he exhibited various paintings at the Esposizione Nazionale in Milan. In 1973 his work “L’alzaia” won a prize at the Vienna Universal Exhibition and in the summer of the same year he went to London with Giuseppe de Nittis and then returned to France where he met up with his friends Boldini, Cecioni, Campriani and also met French artists.
In 1881 he visited London once again and stayed there longer than he had the first time. He also visited other English cities. He went back to England in 1883 and this period marked the high point of the artist’s career, exhibiting at the Royal Accademy and at the Grosvenor Gallery, selling paintings and sealing his success.
However Signorini’s personal life was not as successful as his career. Unfortunately all his friends knew him as an intolerant man and this was something he himself was probably aware of. It may be because of the emptiness in his personal life that, in the early 1810’s, he decided to take care of a nine-year-old girl called Irene Roppele that we find portrayed in some splendid canvases belonging to these years. From 1881 Telemaco began to spend the summers at Settignano in the district of Florence and at the same time went on regular trips to Pietramala on Mount Amiata and to Arcola and Riomaggiore in Liguria. The paintings and etchings showing the old local market in Florence were produced in 1882.
In 1889 he was on the committee of the Italian section for the Paris Esposizione Universale, together with Boldini who was its president, in 1892 he was given the post of teacher of drawing at the Istituto Superiore di Magistero Femminile in Florence and in 1897 he was on the panel of the second Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte di Venezia. He died when he was 66 years old at his home in Florence in 1901.
Written by: Cecilia Iacopetti – Translated by: Catherine Biggerstaff
© Studio d’Arte dell’800