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The Italian Divisionists—so called for the painting technique they employed, namely the division of color via individualized brushstrokes—were active in Italy during the 1890s and early 1900s. These painters remained grounded in academic traditions culled from Italy’s rich visual heritage, yet they took cues from the modernist practices happening elsewhere in Europe—primarily those of the French Neo-Impressionists, or Pointillists—and drew on chromatics and optics to develop an idiom that was all their own. Divisionism/Neo-Impressionism: Arcadia and Anarchy has a subtitle that literally and metaphorically alludes to philosophies shared by many Divisionist and Neo-Impressionist artists. Their choice of a radical new style was as anarchic as their allegiance to leftist politics, but their search for the ideal led to arcadian evocations in idyllic landscapes and mystical imagery.

Camille Pissarro
Apple Picking at Éragny-sur-Epte (La Cueillette des pommes, Éragny-sur-Epte), 1888
© Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund

Divisionism emerged in Northern Italy around the end of the 1880s. The first generation included Vittore Grubicy De Dragon (1851–1920), Emilio Longoni (1859–1932), Angelo Morbelli (1853–1919), Plinio Nomellini (1866–1943), Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868–1907), Gaetano Previati (1852–1920), Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899), and Giovanni Sottocornola (1855–1917). Their painting method was characterized by the juxtaposition of strokes of pigment to create the visual effect of intense single colors. Its roots were in the optical and chromatic ideas developed by scientists, most significantly, in De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (1839) by French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Modern Chromatics (1879) by American physicist Ogden Rood.

Angelo Morbelli
For Eighty Cents! (Per ottanta centesimi!), 1895
© Museo Francesco Borgogna, Vercelli
Photo: Giacomo Gallarate

The theories the Italians adopted were first espoused in the early 1880s by the Neo-Impressionists in France, beginning with Georges Seurat (1859–1891). Among the other artists soon practicing this mode of painting were the Frenchmen Charles Angrand (1854–1826), Henri-Edmond Cross (1856–1910), Albert Dubois-Pillet (1846–1890), Maximilien Luce (1858–1941), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), and Paul Signac (1863–1935), the Belgian Théo Van Rysselberghe (1862–1926), and the Dutchman Jan Toorop (1858–1928). In 1886, Neo-Impressionism garnered international notice with the works shown in Paris at the eighth Impressionist exhibition, most notably Seurat’s epic A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884–86).

Henri-Edmond Cross
Nocturne with Cypresses (Nocturne aux cyprès), 1896
© Association des Amis du Petit-Palais, Geneva
Photo: Studio Monique Bernaz, Geneva

At the time of Divisionism’s inception, Italian artists had seen little or no Neo-Impressionist work firsthand and instead learned about that movement largely through French and Belgian journals such as L’Art moderne. These featured reviews by the noted anarchist art critic Félix Fénéon, who coined the term “Neo-Impressionism.” By 1887, the critic, gallerist, and painter Grubicy, who was largely responsible for disseminating Divisionism in Italy, drew on these published accounts in his own writings, especially in articles he penned for the Roman newspaper La Riforma.

Vittore Grubicy de Dragon
Sea of Mist (Mare di nebbia), 1895
© Private collection

Divisionism/Neo-Impressionism is the first exhibition to situate the Italian Divisionists within an international context alongside the major proponents of Neo-Impressionism. It is organized in five thematic groupings— Light, Landscape, Rural Life, Social Problems, and Symbolism —to address the concerns these artists shared as well as to showcase important instances of divergence in their work. The first section, Light, demonstrates the preoccupation with depicting the refracting effects of lamplight upon color in interiors. Similar interests, as applied to outdoor scenes, are evident in Landscape, which is comprised of works capitalizing upon the effects of sunlight, particularly in the reflective surfaces of rivers, lakes, glaciers, and the sea. Rural Life denotes the pervasive representations of agrarian labor and the sometimes idealized depictions of the peasantry in aesthetically beautiful images that seemingly contradict the hardships implicit within these scenes. In contrast, the paintings in Social Problems more directly call attention to the political issues of the day by portraying strikes, industrial labor, and the urban malaise of the working classes. Finally, Symbolism reveals the direction taken in the late 1890s, primarily by the Italian Divisionists, when artists turned away from political matters to realize transcendent allegorical or spiritual visions.

While the Divisionists worked within similar formal and ideological frameworks as their European counterparts, the influence of Italian art—from the old masters to more recent exponents of naturalism—is manifest in their bucolic scenes, emphasis on modeled form and movement, and consistently large-scale canvases, as well as the reformulation of Christian iconography, particularly in their Symbolist images. Indicating the paradoxical nature of Italian art in this period, these pursuits, in combination with a modern, revolutionary technique, both reflected the Divisionists’ anchoring in Italy’s artistic legacy and pointed the way for the next generation, the Futurists.