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Giovanni Segantini: 1858 - 1899

Giovanni Segantini was born at Arco near Lake Garda, Italy, an Italian by blood but an Austrian by nationality. As a child he was delicate, imaginative, much influenced by his early surroundings. When he was five his mother died and his father, a carpenter, took him to Milan, finally leaving him in the care of a half-sister. After two years of loneliness he ran away, intending to go to France.

He was found and brought up by peasants in the Italian Alps but eventually returned to Milan, where he studied ornamental drawing at the evening school of the Brera Academy. Hardly able to maintain himself, however, he had to be put into a reformatory. There he remained for several years. He was allowed to do a certain amount of drawing, and came to work for a painter of religious banners, returning to the Brera Academy for lessons in figure drawing. In 1879 Segantini did his first oil painting, The Choir of the Church of S. Antonio. In it he used a technique, similar to Pointillism or Neo-Impressionism, that he had developed, apparently, simply by means of observing light and color at first hand.

After spending a few years in Milan painting genre subjects, Segantini moved to the Lake Como district with his young wife. The rest of his life was spent in virtual isolation as he moved higher and higher into the Alps. He was not an influential painter. Although he exhibited in his later years in various European cities, he hardly ever left the mountains and never went further than Milan.

Segantini's subject-matter was little influenced by any outside art, but after he had seen reproductions of the Dutch painter Anton Mauve, a relative and teacher of Vincent van Gogh, his style broadened and became more luminous. He worked out-of-doors and, like the Neo-Impressionists, experimented with optical mixtures, or the blending of color not on the canvas but in the eye of the beholder. For some years the subject of Segantini's oils and drawings were the life of the peasants around him, the mother-child relationship, and the Alpine scenery. He also produced, through his life, remarkably penetrating portraits.

Suddenly he developed a symbolist style and subject-matter, nurtured in him by the various influences of the writer Zola, the philosopher Neitzche, the composed Wagner, and the German Romantic painters. Even his symbolist pictures had mountain backgrounds. His last, unfinished, work was an elaborate triptych called Life, Nature, and Death and set in the familiar Alpine landscape. While climbing the Schafberg, in the course of painting this picture, he caught a chill, developed peritonitis, and died on September 28, 1899.


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