19th Century Art: Italian Paintings

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19th Century Art: Italian Paintings
Some 19th-century Italain artists painted landscapes to reflect their national pride. (Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images)

During the 19th century, Italian painters were engaged in the major artistic movements of the time. Neoclassicism dominated the early 1800s and gradually gave way to romanticism, realism and experiments with impressionism. For much of the 19th century, Italy was also embroiled in a political movement to regain local control from French and Austrian regimes and unite the peninsula into one nation. Italian painters reflected that political ideal -- and the nationalism that fuelled it -- in their work.

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The Neoclassicists

The 19th century began with Vincenzo Camuccini at the forefront of a group of Italian neoclassic painters who wanted to restore values such as harmony, order and grandeur to painting. The neoclassicists felt those qualities had been lost through the excess movement and emotion embraced by baroque and rococo artists. Camuccini and his contemporaries, particularly Gaspare Landi, relied on muted but harmonious colours and compositions that stressed balance and control. Religious and historical scenes dominated their work, and their subjects and themes glorified nobility and virtue.

The Etruscan School

Giovanni Costa put down his paint brushes in 1848 to join Giuseppe Garibaldi's military campaign to unite Italy. He participated in several successful battles but was forced to flee into the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside when France gained control of Rome. He spent the next decade developing a style and theory of landscape art. Costa's paintings captured broad panoramas with dramatic skylines. He wanted his landscapes to stir emotions and trigger pride in Italy. Costa settled in Florence and led the Etruscan School of painters, a group of Italian and British artists who followed his style of landscape painting.


Domenico Morelli's career unfolded in Naples during the latter half of the 19th century. In his early paintings, he used historical and religious themes to promote the unification of Italy, a cause he actively supported. Over time, he developed a freer, more realistic style that relied on natural instead of heroic poses and compositions. Morelli used dramatic contrasts of colours, light and shadows to underscore the drama of his subjects. He continued to use luminous colours and gold and white light in his later spiritual and supernatural paintings. Morelli devoted much time to teaching and Francesco Michetti was among his most successful students.

The Macchiaioli

Around the middle of the 19th century, a group of painters from Florence began experimenting with a new style that used blotches of pure colour to depict their subjects. Known as the Macchiaioli, which literally means "the spotters," the group declared their independence from the formal art academies of Florence and Rome and focused their energies on capturing the interplay of colour and natural light. They painted outdoors and found their subjects in the everyday scenes that took place around them. The Macchiaioli were the forerunners of the French Impressionists who soon became the dominant movement of virtually all 19th-century European art.

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