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Marià Fortuny, The Wandering Spanish Eye

Viejo desnudo al sol
Viejo desnudo al sol, 1863

Born on June 11, 1838 in Reus, Spain, Marià Fortuny (Mariano José María* Bernardo Fortuny y Marsal) was a Romantic Catalan Spanish painter. He was known for his loose, distinctive brushwork, strong colors and a rich breadth of subject matter such as Academic drawings, military, portraiture and Orientalism. At a time when many painters of his era were taking more lucrative portraiture commissions while balancing their own individual styles, Fortuny's Romantic independence gave him a fresh eye, no matter where he pointed his brush. And while France was in the beginnings of breaking from the Salon and rising toward Impressionism, Fortuny seems to have absorbed outside influences from Paris and Rome into his own uniquely Spanish style. Sadly, his characteristic genius—like some notably great artists before him—was cut short and Fortuny passed away at the very young age of 36. One can only wonder what direction he would have taken had he lived another twenty or thirty years.

In Viejo desnudo al sol above, Fortuny takes a subject that was often restricted to beggars or devout ascetics such as Saint Jerome and in an unusual twist offers an unabashed, almost drunken optimism of old age. Look at the pose. No one painted old men like this before. No one. Just this past September, I had the privilege of studying this painting at El Prado in Madrid, and I can honestly say that even this hi-res image from Wikipedia simply cannot do justice to seeing it in person. The brushwork is truly magnificent. Fortuny captures the texture and folds of a lean, aging man in the hot sun as if it were no challenge at all. You can see how much yellow he added to those whites to keep them from exploding off the canvas. The midtones and shadows here are painted in a range of ochres and browns that veer into mud and yet it looks absolutely spot-on. The very warm shadow on his neck is flawless. Fortuny literally paints the background in black, thin strokes over a warm underpainting while adding a warmer yellow-white to the black on his left, which moves toward a muddy green. The hands and bottom of the painting are left unfinished. It is not really known how long it took Fortuny to paint this, and whether it was only intended as a study, but one thing is for sure: it is brilliant.

Fortuny Fantasia àrab
Arab Fantasia, 1867

I love the action in this painting. It has the feel of a modern dynamic book cover. Note how the composition has depth, with the central figures twisting and jumping, firing their rifles into the ground as if some kind of bizarre ritualistic dance while the others stand around them unsurprised. Look at the interesting strokes of tone he uses to convey the textures of the walls of the left and floor, cool on top of warm, with traces of greyish whites. The far wall on the right appears to be a Raw Sienna color scumbled on top of a warm underpainting. And while this composition is tight and intriguing, Fortuny opens it up with a slit of light from above to indicate we are in a cave of some sort. Fortuny's use of complimentary colors on the drapery of certain figures helps keep our eyes from wandering outside of the composition.

MARIANO FORTUNY - La Odalisca (Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, 1861. Óleo sobre cartón, 56.9 x 81 cm)
La Odalisca, 1861

This beautiful figure represents a theme often used in art, especially French painters, and here Fortuny adds a kind of relaxed, Renaissance grace to her. A sultan in the corner plays for her. Note Fortuny's strong use of textures and colors, especially the complimentary red and green. There is an overall sensuality and stillness in this composition, and in the way the odalisque seems to beckon him with her hand on her hip suggests the seductive power of music itself.

Fortuny El col·leccionista d'estampes I
El colleccionista d'estampes, 1863

Fortuny has an innate ability for narration by using background details to create a setting that lures us in, quietly, using his trademark colors and textures, vibrant and hypnotic, to hold our attention and find out what is happening. A collector of antiquities peruses his collection of what appears to be drawings or prints, with a dealer looking over his shoulder. I love the window-light bathing this sumptuous room. Look at the transparent shadow on the wall and corner behind them. We can see how Fortuny contrasts loose brushstrokes of the rug against the pristine detail of the furniture and the clothing. It is in these lush colors and variations of brushwork that decades later, an American artist would follow in this path and establish himself in his own right, that of John Singer Sargent.

Below are some of Fortuny's watercolor art and an Academic drawing:

Fortuny.Hombre apoyado sobre una mesa.
Hombre sobre una mesa, watercolor, 1869

Fortuny.HombresemidesnudoMuseo Castres
Hombre semidesnudo, watercolor, 1872

Fortuny, Nu masculí amb llança (300 D)
Desnudo masculino con lanza, charcoal, 1860

Marià Fortuny - Il contino - Google Art Project
Il contino, watercolor, 1861

MARIANO FORTUNY - La Vicaría (Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña, 1870. Óleo sobre tabla, 60 x 93.5 cm)
La Vicaría, 1870

The Wedding in English, this painting summarizes the talent and narrative skills of Fortuny. The use of body language throughout the composition requires little explanation. Again, a large window light source washes over the room, leaving a depth and richness to the gated room behind the figures. The scene is essentially timeless in what it represents, yet here he captures a moment in wealthy Spanish society of the 19th century with rich attention to costume and facial expressions. Seated off to the right, presumably, the parents of the bride watch as the newlyweds sign their names. Observe how the center group is arranged in threes, with different spacing of each group of three, and each figure has their own individual expression. It is not clear what the masked figure holding the tray represents, but he is intriguing nonetheless.

Fortuny represents an era at its last vestiges before the gradual but certain eclipse of Industrialization and technology. It may seem quaint or elegant to our modern eye yet the honesty of his perception and the colorful vision he left behind is truly timeless, and, unlike our mass produced society, unique. Fortuny absorbed from Goya and Velázquez, among others, but his visual flair did not distract but instead, inspired us more. And still does to this day.

*Maria is a common middle name in the masculine in Spanish, Italian and other cultures


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