Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny's massive battlefield masterpiece,
National Museum of Art of Catalonia, in Barcelona, Spain.
Virtually every painter likes to be rewarded with commissions. It validates our past work, confirms confidence in future creations, and best of all, lines our pockets. Sometimes a big commission will push the artist well out of his or her "safety" zone, resulting in exceptional works of lasting artistic value far beyond even the artist would have thought possible. But, how would you like to be rewarded with a commission which begins with the purchase of fifteen yards of canvas? The painting would eventually measure a mere thirty-one feet wide and just short of ten feet in height. Today, the it hangs in the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, in Barcelona, Spain, where it sports a brand new frame, the largest ever built for the museum. On that scale, the painting, though on canvas, begins to move into the realm of a mural, and in fact, flirts with the term, diorama.

Mariano Fortuny Self-portrait, ca. 1860
Needless to say, being awarded such a huge commission was the chance of a lifetime for the twenty-two-year-old Spanish painter named Mariano Fortuny. One can't help but think though, that as exciting, challenging, and rewarding as such a commission must have been, it must have also been more than a little intimidating as well. Yet Fortuny was no stranger to large-scale academic works, having shortly before completed a painting for the Royal Gallery of Versailles titled Godfrey de Bouillon proclaimed King of Jerusalem. In fact, his very first painting, done when he was a child of eleven, a resurrection of Christ, had been purchased by Queen Christina of Sweden. This painting, commissioned by the Catalonia government was to be a battle scene depicting the Spanish victory over Moroccan forces in the Battle of Tetuan during the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1859-60.

Mariano Fortuny, hard at work on a preparatory drawing for his "big painting."
The blood was hardly dry on the battlefield before the ambitious young artist was off to Morocco to get a feel for the place and begin sketching resource material. Fortuny attacked the project much like a modern-day movie director might do in preparing for a film. For the better part of three months, Fortuny travel about the desert country, living in a tent, writing almost daily in keeping his governmental clients abreast of his work and that of an entourage of several aides and apprentices. They drew the natives, painted preliminary color sketches while all the time soaking up the exotic "color" of the land (and the erotic culture), as well as collecting "souvenirs," uniforms, weapons, and reports of battlefield tactics. Battlefield scenes were a big item in the art world. They demanded immense scale, dramatic action, and in some cases, an extreme obsession with accuracy. For all his seemingly overwrought attention to detail, the man knew what he was doing. Besides, the government was paying the bills. For his efforts, Fortuny was to be paid 40,000 escudo for the painting plus a per-diem of 2,000 escudo per month for his time in Morocco. (I've not been able to trace down a modern-day dollar equivalent for any of that.)

Capturing camp Abd-El-Kader in Tagin, Algeria. May 16, 1843,
painted in 1844, Horace Vernet
Capturing camp Abd-El-Kader in Tagin, Algeria.
May 16, 1843 (detail), Horace Vernet.
In 1860, Fortuny returned to Spain, intent upon setting up a studio in Rome, where he planned to paint his massive masterpiece. The city fathers in Barcelona though it wise to send their budding young artist off to Paris to be inspired by the work of French artist, Horace Vernet, whom one might term the "battlefield artist to end all battlefield artists." If Fortuny's canvas was huge, Vernet's 1844 Capturing Camp Abd-El-Kader in Tagin, Algeria. May 16, 1843 (above), was nothing short of enormous--23 yards long--which, indeed, puts it into the diorama category. Fortuny was impressed, to say the least. Overwhelmed, might be a better word. Rather than being inspired, he was demoralized. If a Vernet battlefield was what his Catalonia elders were expecting, it began to dawn on the young painter that he was in over his head...WAAY over his head.

The Odalisque, 1861, Mariano Fortuny--lots more fun than painting battlefields.
The Tapestry Merchant (detail), 1870,
Mariano Fortuny
Fortuny did go on to set up his studio in Rome, but couldn't bring himself to even start the Tetuan painting. Instead, he busied himself painting small works gleaned from his time in Morocco--nude odalisques (above), colorful street scenes (right), architectural, figural, and character studies--content to kid himself that he was doing preliminary work for the battlefield painting when, in fact, he was contemplating giving the money back just to rid himself of a project he already loathed, even before putting paint to canvas. In 1862, with his Catalonian clients breathing down his back, Fortuny returned once more to Morocco, hoping to fortify his resolve to fulfill the commission. Even though it had been two years since he was supposed to have begun, the ever-patient Catalonians extended his deadline by three more years.

The Battle of Tetuan, 1862, full scale drawing, Mariano Fortuny
The Battle of Tetuan, 1863, Mariano Fortuny, as of when he gave up.
Battle of Tetuan (detail, center section), 1963,
Mariano Fortuny
Returning to Rome, Fortuny began making full-scale drawings and color sketches of various details to be employed in the final work (above). Casting himself as a "slave" to the "big picture," Fortuny worked intermittently on the painting for the next two years propelled by the fact that the Catalonians were now constantly looking over his shoulder, watching his every move. Finally, the deadline for finishing the work looming, Fortuny gave up. Claiming ill health, he gave back the money he'd been advanced and left the thirty-one foot-long completed section of the Battle of Tetuan hanging on his studio wall (bottom) until his sudden death in 1874 from malaria, which he'd been battling since returning from Morocco some twelve years earlier. The following year, the Catalonia Council paid Fortuny's widow 50,000 pesetas for the unfinished work. There's no record as to what they had to pay for a frame.

Fortuny in his Studio in Rome around 1870. His "Big Picture" (on the wall in back)
and the name, Vernet, continued to haunt him until his death.
Fellow Catalan, Salvador Dali, seems not to have been the least bit
intimidated by his version of The Battle of Tetuan, painted in 1952.


No comments:

Post a Comment