Italian Lakes – Giovanni Segantini

Painter of the Alps

THE name of Arco recalls the career of a man of the mountains, whose longing and endeavour taught him both to understand and then to paint the Alps and their inhabitants, as they are, in season and out of sea-son. In his pictures we find a workaday alpine world, illuminated by his genius. He depicts the men, women, and children of the heights, the sheep and the goats, the cattle and horses of the uplands. He lays his scenes in the stable or on the pasture, on the alp or aim, and round about in his pictures the mountain ranges, the precipitous peaks, and the great snow giants stand guard. He has given us the exalted simplicity and power of the Alps, and withal the intimate, naïve, and elemental life of those who make their living off the slopes and in the secluded valleys.

To follow Segantini’s artistic career is to journey over a good portion of the southern slope of the Alps and their approaches, starting on Austrian soil, then turning to Italy, and ending in Switzerland. In a certain sense, therefore, a description of his life and work forms a fitting climax to this volume, devoted to the subalpine lake region.

It was in Arco that Segantini was born, but his career rises in an ascending scale from the lowlands into the highlands, from the plains at the foot of the Alps by slow stages into the heights themselves, there to dwell until the end of his artistic mission. Step by step he won his way, first from the city atmosphere of Milan, whither he was taken in early childhood, from an atmosphere heavy laden with the friction of a great population, to the rural country of the Brianza, resting snugly among the alpine fore-hills. Then he climbed into a valley of the Swiss Canton of Graubünden, and for years painted what he saw there from the world apart, while his fame spread over Europe. Finally he rose to the upland plateau of the upper Engadine, and there, at the very edge of its loftiest portion, at far-famed Maloja, about on the limit of the habitable portion of the Alps, he brought his art and his intimate conceptions to their climax and culmination.

Thus he knew the Alps in all their gradations, summering and wintering in them and with them, and loved their every characteristic and feature. For him their solitudes were not lonesome, but filled with thought. He understood the lives of the people and rejoiced with them. The flowers were his companions. The mountain torrents spoke and he answered.

It may occur to some one to institute a comparison between this Italian interpreter of the Alps and Defregger, of Teutonic Tyrolese stock, because they both painted in the alpine highlands. In reality these two artists have little in common, except the environment of their work. Defregger is preeminently the painter of the alpine anecdote, or historical incident, the painter of a people of German race, first and foremost, his landscape is always incidental, his method is that of the academies in which he studied, his temperament is spontaneously joyous, and his work almost invariably happy and bright. Segantini is a great master of landscape and of the symbolical interpretation of the Alps, as well as a noble genre painter. He rarely breaks the predominant sense of sobriety and earnestness in his pictures. His human figures often assume complete subordination even to the cattle and to their mountain surroundings. Men and women sometimes appear in his pictures as mere specks in the vast amphitheatre of an alpine basin. More-over, Segantini broke away from the traditions of his academic schooling, both in method and in choice of subjects, and his fame rests upon a totally different basis from that of his neighbour in the northern Alps.

Segantini has left some fragmentary auto-biographical data in letters and elsewhere, from which it is possible to gather a few salient facts about his youth and early struggles. His mother died when he was five years old, and his father then left Arco and took the child with him to Milan. There was a son and daughter of a former marriage, and the four for awhile made up the household in the city. But the business in which father and son were engaged failed, and they soon moved away, leaving little Giovanni in the care of his stepsister. As the stepsister was away all day at work, the child remained much alone at home, and, for fear that harm might come to him, he was kept in what proved to be virtual imprisonment. The child was sensitive and imaginative, and suffered greatly from this con-finement in cheerless surroundings, according to Segantini’s own naïve recital of these early days.

He must have been about seven years of age when, one day, hearing persons speak of some one who had gone to France from Milan, the little fellow decided to run away. He was found outside of the city by the roadside at night, wet through from a rain-storm, and was cared for by kindly peasant folk. As he refused to return to his stepsister, these people allowed him to remain with them for several months, herding their swine and geese. At the end of that time his step-sister found him, and he temporarily returned with her to Milan.

Soon, however, he was sent to live with the stepbrother, who was keeping a sausage shop in the Val Sugana, off from Trent in Tyrol. There Giovanni remained for a few years, but eventually he made an attempt to run away from the stepbrother also, and only returned to him through the failure of his plans for getting out into the wide, wide world beyond. Then the boy was sent back to Milan, and at the age of about twelve was placed in an institution for orphaned and homeless children. From that institution he made his third and last attempt to run away, but was brought back, and at the age of fifteen was finally graduated to make his own way in the world.

His stepsister now apprenticed him to a photographer and painter of transparencies and banners, so that he might begin to make use of the talent for drawing, of which he had already given evidence in the orphan home. At the same time he began to visit the Art Academy attached to the famous Brera Gallery in Milan. His work showed originality, and by degrees excited much comment on the part both of students and teachers. He even received some prize medals from the Academy competitions, but at the end of his second year of study his work had aroused so much partisanship that it was pronounced revolutionary, and his picture for the year having been badly hung at the prize exhibition, he left the Academy, feeling himself misunderstood and aggrieved.

Years of bitter struggle followed, during which he barely made a living by a little teaching and was obliged to resort to small loans from friends.

In his twentieth year he exhibited a painting of the ancient choir of the Church of San Antonio in Milan, which won instant recognition as a work of merit in the treatment of light effects. Segantini’s former schoolmates at the Academy, remembering his hardships, raised a purse and bought the picture of him for three hundred (300) lire.

Segantini now set up a studio for himself near the Brera, painted what he saw from his window or on the street, and also gained access to an anatomical clinic, where he studied the human body. From this period dates a picture which throws light on a pro-found ethical characteristic of his genius. With his newly acquired knowledge of anatomy he painted the picture of a woman in the last stages of consumption. It was a death-bed scene. But later, in what was doubtless an involuntary revulsion against such a portrayal and against the perpetuation of such suggestions of disease, Segantini painted the picture over again and changed the dying patient into a fresh and healthy person just awakening from sleep, and renamed the picture ” Rose-leaf.”

In 1881, when Segantini had reached the age of twenty-three, he married, and then started on that wonderful uphill journey of growth and development which was to take him by degrees from Milan to Maloja, through eighteen years of ripening experience and work, and place him on the pinnacle of artistic fame among the great modern painters.

His first step was into the Brianza, into the pastoral region already described in this book, which thrusts itself forward to a point between the two arms of Lake Como. Segantini spent about five years in this region, painting principally its sheep and horses and the peasants at labour. For more than a year he lived at Pusiano, a hamlet on the borders of the little lake of the same name and on the edge of the hills. Then he took a step upward to Corneno, just above Pusiano, whence the view stretches over the lowlands. Here he remained another two years and a half. It was during his Brianza period that Segantini first made the acquaintance of Millet’s work. Some photographs were shown him during a visit to Milan; he never saw the originals, and instantly he recognized a kindred artist. The effect upon Segantini was instantaneous, not in the way of blind imitation, but in awakening him to his own capabilities and possibilities. There was much in the personal history and in the aspirations of these two great artists which made them one, although they never met. During this period also Segantini saw some reproductions of pictures of the Dutch school, which likewise acted as an incentive to him and revealed to him something of the general European drift in the great art world outside, with which he had no actual contact.

In 1885 Segantini took another step up-ward, fraught with the most important results to his artistic career.

The carriage road which bisects the region of the Brianza from Erba to Bellagio mounts through the Val Assina. About half-way between these two places, after passing the considerable village of Canzo, it is possible to make your way to a mountain hamlet by the name of Caglio. Here Segantini lived for some six months and painted the great picture which may be said to mark his en-trance upon that world-wide appreciation which his work has now acquired. Judging by the increasing number of monographs devoted to him, and the constantly growing value set on his pictures, his reputation is still steadily rising.

It is interesting to note that the first official European honours conferred upon Segantini, apart from the little episode in Milan, came from Holland. Both in 1883 and 1886 he received the gold medal from Amsterdam, and most of his later works went across the Alps, especially to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. But in Caglio he painted a picture which his own country was proud to recognize as a masterpiece.

In 1888 the Italian government bought his ” Alla Stagna,” ” At the Milking Bar,” which then went to the National Museum in Rome. This picture represents a mountain pasture at eventide, upon which a herd of cows is distributed at several milking bars or fences. The close-cropped pasture stretches off into a distance closed by low hills. We are evidently not in the high Alps yet, but the herd of cattle indicates that we have risen to the pasture-lands. The evening sun shines benignly over the scene. There are some women to milk the cows, but technically they stand in a subordinate position to the cattle, and the latter, in a great variety of pose and colour, dominate the scene.

In the summer of 1886 Segantini, with his wife and children, moved up higher and farther into the alpine world to a little village called Savognin in the Canton Graubünden, Switzerland. This village is on the road which passes from Tiefenkastel to St. Moritz over the Julier Pass, and is situated in the valley called Oberhalbstein. The place is not quite four thousand feet above the level of the sea and is a characteristic alpine settlement, not exceptional in any way, and at that time quite untouched by resident tourists. Here the Segantini family lived for eight years, during which time the artist’s pictures were being shown in various art centres of Europe. In 1888 a collection of his pictures was exhibited in London, in 1889 he exhibited at the Paris Exposition of that year.

It was at Savognin and in its surroundings that Segantini at last reached the true alpine atmosphere, for which he seems always inwardly to have yearned, and which hence-forth made him the great scenic interpreter of this upper world to mankind at large.

The total number of Segantini’s pictures is very large, considering the shortness of his artistic life. Official figures, though avowedly incomplete, place his oil paintings at 132 and his sketches and pastels at 108.

Among the many works which have contributed to earn him the title of the Painter of the Alps, the following may be enumerated as special examples, though no claim is made that this list is in any sense complete :

” Knitting Girl at the Fence ” shows a girl sitting on the ground beside a fence and deeply absorbed in the stitches of her knitting, while a few sheep stand quietly beside her. Through the bars of the fence there is a view of the village of Savognin beyond. The scene is just such as any traveller might see for himself in Graubünden. The very absence of the extraordinary or sensational gives this picture a special impressiveness. The whole is full of rest and alpine stillness.

” The Two Mothers ” represents a stable scene in which we discern a cow at the stall with her calf and a sitting woman with a baby in arms. A lantern hangs from the ceiling and sheds a strong light upon the woman’s face.

A picture entitled ” Yoked Cows,” and now to be found in Zürich, in the Henneberg Gallery, takes us into the open air. Two cows are yoked to a rude cart. They stand before a mountain water-trough, made alpine-fashion from the trunk of a tree. The girl who has been driving the cows is now herself drinking with lowered head from the wooden spout of the fountain. In the middle distance is seen a village, and some snow-covered mountains, though not “snow mountains,” fill out the background.

One of Segantini’s best-known pictures is “The Furrow,” also called ” Ploughing in the Alps.” This painting is now in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. It received the gold medal at the Turin Exhibition in 1892. In some respects “The Furrow” strongly recalls Millet’s work, but this re-semblance would not seem to proceed from any imitation, but from a certain natural similarity in the point of view, if not in the workmanship of the two great painters. We are introduced to an upland valley, probably that of Savognin. In the foreground two men are seen ploughing with two horses. The furrows and the bare ground, where the sod has been overturned, stretch back in a curving line. Again there is a village in the middle ground, characterized by the usual alpine architecture, part wood, part stone and mortar, the roofs sloping so as to shed the winter snow, and a church spire rising from their midst. The background is formed by mountain ranges, similar to those in the picture entitled ” Yoked Cows,” i. e. ranges which are still partly covered with snow during the months of April and May, but are bare of snow during the summer. No one who is acquainted with the Alps all the year round, and not merely during the short tourist season, can fail to be impressed with Segantini’s fidelity and clearness on all points, born of an intimate knowledge and love of the mountains and of accurate observation at all times and seasons.

” Alpine Pasture,” now in Vienna in private hands, is an idyl of special charm to those who love the upper solitudes above the timber line. We find ourselves on a real alp or alm of wide extent. A shepherd boy sits on a rock in the foreground; near him a number of shorn sheep graze or gaze vacantly into the distance. In the middle ground, down in the hollow, lies a small alpine lake, hardly more than a pond, on the borders of which the figures of some more sheep and also of a herd of cattle appear somewhat indistinctly. Three men are tending the animals. Bare, rugged mountains close in the scene, and an occasional snow peak or slope gleams in the far distance. A great quiet reigns over the stony pasture, an aloofness from the world makes itself felt. No one could have painted this picture who had not learned from actual experience, literally by heart, the alpine interplay of light and shade, the shifting colour-scheme of these lofty regions and their rare stillness, where, aside from the herds and flocks and the infrequent movements of their herders, only the wandering clouds, the nodding flowers, and the circling birds seem to express motion. Segantini certainly acquired this faculty of viewing the outside world from a distance, of looking off, and absorbing the meanings of alpine length and breadth and reproducing the impression of immovable immensity.

” Spring Pasture,” now in Zürich in the Henneberg Gallery, renders the summer pasture in the full glow of early sunshine. There is a white cow with the regulation bell hanging from her neck. Her calf is not far off. The grass stretches in great billows off to some superb mountain forms at the back. A straying cloud has caught on one of the summits and hangs there enveloping the peak in a dark mist. Two distant figures of women and the corner of an alpine hut supply the only human touch, and over the whole an atmosphere of spring-time joyousness holds undisputed sway.

” Haying Time ” represents a familiar scene in Graubünden. In the foreground a girl is stooping low to scrape together every wisp of hay with her rake. This hay is to be carefully wrapped in bundles, as is seen in the middle ground, where a few women are loading such hay bundles upon a cart drawn by cows. A few jagged mountain figures loom up at the back.

The last phase in Segantini’s artistic development, his final climb into the heights, took him to Maloja in the upper Engadine. He went there in the summer of 1894 and took up his quarters in an ample Swiss chalet not very far from the borders of the Lake of Sils. Maloja is almost six thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is thus about as high as the line of the habitable portion of the Alps. Segantini could hardly have moved his home up higher with any profit to his work. Indeed he found it necessary at times to descend on the Italian side of the Maloja Pass to a place called Soglio in the Val Bregaglia. The climate of the upper Engadine is locally described as ” nine months winter and three months cold,” but during those three brilliant months Maloja and adjacent resorts are filled with guests from every quarter of the globe, making the region a veritable international rendezvous. Thus, if Segantini could not be induced to go out to meet the big world, that world came to him in the mountains.

The first large picture he painted at Maloja was entitled ” Return to the Native Land,” now in the National Gallery in Berlin. It tells the story of a family bringing the dead body of their son home on a cart for burial. A man leads the horse, while a woman sits mourning beside the bier. The horse and a dog which follows the cart both display the sadness of the hour by their drooping attitude. Segantini also painted numerous allegorical and symbolical pictures, generally using alpine backgrounds for his figures with novel effects, but a consideration of these works would take the reader somewhat outside the scope of this book.

A ” Portrait of a German Lady,” for example, in private possession in Berlin, sets forth a sitting figure with an alpine back-ground of alp, cliff, and peak.

It was Segantini’s special desire to produce a grand triptych to celebrate the Alpine world as a whole. It was to be a grand summary, an epic portrayal with the brush of the majesty of the mountains and the simple occupations of the alpine dwellers. The work in its entirety was never completed, but the three large paintings which were to form the basis of it were almost finished by the great artist before his death. These are entitled ” Nature,” ” Life,” and ” Death.”

” Nature,” as Segantini left it, would probably have received a little more work at his hands had he lived, but to all intents and purposes it can be accepted as it stands. It is morning on the alp and the snow mountains stand round about in their full glory. In the left foreground are seen a mother and child sitting under a lofty cedar of the Alps (pinus cembra), that noble tree which, some-what rare in other parts of Switzerland, occurs with greater frequency in the upper Engadine, as well as in Southern Tyrol and in such mountain regions as the Pyrenees, the Carpathians, and even in Southern Siberia. There is a small lake in the hollow of the alpine basin and cattle are grazing at its margin. A man with a stick is driving a cow before him. Two women enter the picture from the right middle distance, wending their way over a winding mountain path. The alp is still in the subdued light of early morning, but the rays of the sun strike with full force on the crags and snow slopes of the enclosing mountains beyond. There is an air of classic arrangement in this picture which makes it combine in one the Latin influence of the south and the Teutonic environment of the north. One would not be surprised to see a Greek temple rising there beside the great cedar of the Alps, to complete the welding of ancient art and alpine nature. This touch makes the picture reminiscent, almost symbolical in quality, and places it quite apart from paintings of the Alps by other artists. Indeed ” Nature ” is unique even among Segantini’s own pictures. It is as though this Italian genius had comprehended and therein expressed in lasting form that modern love for the mountains which his countrymen are now experiencing, and which leads them to climb in ever-increasing numbers the abrupt southern slopes of the Alps in order mentally to make them their own.

” Life ” is probably entirely finished. It forms a complete contrast to ” Nature ” in tone and thought, though the scene is again laid in the upland pasture-lands. The time is transferred to the set of sun. A man is driving the cattle home along a stony mountain path. Behind him comes a woman leading a calf by a rope, while the mother cow walks contentedly alongside. The landscape is of transcendent richness and splendour, and must immediately warm the heart of every true lover of the Alps. The eye is drawn over the familiar rock-strewn sward of the uplands, patched with brilliant green grass-plots, to a clear distance wherein is outlined a range of great mountains spark-ling with everlasting snow. An all-enveloping yellow effulgence covers the western sky, in which a lone orange-tinted cloud floats quietly at ease. It is such a landscape as one may have seen returning at the end of some summer day from an ascent into the snow peaks above.

” Death ” was intended to complete this colossal trilogy, built upon the theme of the Alps, but the picture was never finished. As blocked out it represents a sombre winter scene. Deep snow lies everywhere, covering the land to the tops of the fences. The roofs of the houses are burdened with it. A little group of mourners stands near a house door. An ominous mountain range rises at the back, and a cloud coils around one of the peaks like volcano smoke.

In 1899 Segantini died at the Upper Schafberg Restaurant, a point over nine thousand feet above the level of the sea, situated above Pontresina in the upper Engadine. It is a favourite point of view, and there is now a tablet there in his memory. His grave is in the little cemetery of Maloja. One feels that the good painter, ever reaching higher, both in art and altitude, was able through years of single-minded endeavour to express to others by his brush some of the truth which he felt welling up in himself, — and so passed on to learn more and achieve even greater results in an ascending scale. In the meantime, wherever there are those who hear with memory’s ear the tinkling of cattle bells on upland pastures, the murmur of distant avalanches, the gurgle of little brooks across sunlit meadows; who see with mind’s eye the white mountains exalted against an impenetrable azure and the tiny flowers wavering in the draught that draws between the crags; who, having experienced the peace of the high Alps, desire to give thanks, — in them Segantini has found enthusiastic friends whose affection time will not obliterate.