MONTICELLI Adolphe Joseph Thomas
( 1824-1886) French painter; born and died in Marseilles. The offspring of an old Piedmontese family, Monticelli was, as a painter, the direct heir of the great Venetians. In 1846 he left Marseilles for Paris, studied there for three years, went back and then returned to the capital in 1863, where he lived until the war of 1870. Then he returned to his native city, on foot, and did not leave it again until his death. His last ten years were the most fruitful and original period of his career, a period of exaltation and certainty, of lucid entrancement, although it is the least known. Up to 1870 Monticelli was influenced by the art of museums and of his illustrious contemporaries, by that of Watteau, Veronese, Rembrandt, and also of Diaz, Delacroix, Courbet. Personal as it may be, his painting was then precious, brilliant and mannered. This is the painting that would tempt forgers: The Courts of Love and Scenes of the Park and Scenes of the Opera, of which there are innumerable imitations. After 1870 he did not give up scenes of the park and the opera, but from then on it was in his dreams that he saw the masquerades, balls and fêter galantes and pursued their scintillating illusions.
He also painted flowers, portraits and travelling shows. He had conquered his idiom and he enriched it with all the technical means his instinct suggested: thick layers of paint, varnish, mixtures of tones, shading, glaze. In this oily, kneaded, tormented mixture forms seem to bog down, colours to vanish. And then, as the attention persists, the forms reassemble, and the colours emit vivid glows. Golden yellows, midnight blues, reddish shadows, sumptuous blacks sprinkled with touches of emerald and a few drops of vermilion: everything that would be a thick pudding with others is, with him, an alchemist's secret. ' Monticelli taught me chromatism', Van Gogh said later, with gratitude. In preparing his mixtures and reactions, Monticelli was aware of the wonders time would work with them; he knew that one tone would dim, another intensify; that the years would bring out an unnoticed form and an unsuspected contour; that his work would live and relive, changing, multiple, giving off here a nugget, there a gem, hitherto buried in the affectionately mixed paste. 'I paint for fifty years hence', he prophesied. He worked with frenzy, executing landscapes that dripped with light and were saturated with warmth; portraits, flowers, fruit, whose shifting splendours hide none of the admirable draughtsmanship, figures and objects cast in a kind of lava of melted gold and silver. The trees devoured by slow combustion are almost the same ones that Van Gogh was to set on fire. These woods along a rough slope of hills in Provence seem to reappear in the canvases of Soutine, but devastated by a violent tornado.
Monticelli announced modern Expressionism, and he can also be regarded as a precursor of Impressionism. Were not air, light and atmosphere his chief preoccupations? Nevertheless, instead of reproducing natural light and its fugitive variations, he put an invented light, a pictorial light, into his works. And this light is not only a personal, absolute medium, it is also a sign of spiritual elevation. He said of his discovery: 'I am the luminous centre; it is I who light'. That part of his production is open to criticism, there is no doubt. However, it cannot be denied that Monticelli was one of the great French painters of the nineteenth century. Delacroix singled him out. Cézanne was fond of him. We know from letters how much Van Gogh admired him. There are more powerful painters, of harder and more sonorous metal. But no one attempted this learned and bold painting before him.
A belated and fertile genius -- he accumulated over eight hundred pictures in less than ten years -- Monticelli seems an innovator in direct line of the baroque artists who, from the Romantic Delacroix to the Expressionist Van Gogh, practised what can be called a painting of temperament.