Giulio Aristide Sartorio

(Roma 1860 - 1932)

Frieze with Hephebes, Hellenic Reflection (1926 c.)

Measures: 170 x 150 cm

Technique: oil on canvas

Bibliography: Giulio Aristide Sartorio 1860-1932, exhibition catalogue edited by R. Miracco (Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, March 24 – June 11 2006), Florence: Maschietto Editore/Mandragora, 2006, p. 292;

Exhibitions: 1926, Trieste, Michelazzi Gallery, n.5; Milan, Dedalo Gallery (exhibition of Sartorio’s artwork collected by Marga Sevilla), n. 8, table, IV; Rome, 1961, n. 140.

Frieze with Ephebes, Hellenic Reflection, is a painting with a distinct symbolist slant executed in 1926 that represents one of the most intimate and evocative versions of a frieze. Far from the allegorical idealism and the monochromatism of the official style of the early twentieth century, Sartorio deploys a more personal sensibility that results in a combination of lights and colour, and the glorification of the ephebes’ harmonious movement, in a frieze of clear Hellenic inspiration.

In this work that marks the beginning of the artist’s last magical painting period, matter and light intertwine giving life to a balanced study of the five bodies of the ephebes playing with laurel festoons. Although the frieze is an echo of early decorations, it was painted at the height of the painter’s poetic and stylistic maturity and embodies the idea of “art as a total expression of life”[1], recalling at the same time the monumentality of the public friezes made during the first two decades of the twentieth century in Rome, the images of Greek mythology, and the bright and intimate family scenes he painted in the 1920s in Fregene (a small town on the Roman coast).

The skilful, and at times material, brushstrokes give the ephebes a peculiar movement conveyed through plastic poses that imply symbolic and literary references. “By decorative art, I do not only mean a group of harmoniously arranged figures, but also a group of symbols with an epic meaning. A frieze is not just a painting to me, it is also – and even more – a poem”, said the artist in an interview from 1912. The complex and idealistic content of the frieze emerges from the choice of the subject: ephebes with an almost feminine grace; they recall the pure, energetic freshness of youth and tell through images the aesthetic concept of the German Jugendstil. During his trips to Germany and Austria in the late 1890s, while he was working as a painting professor at the Weimar School of Art appointed by the Grand Duke himself, Sartorio had certainly approached these ideas and the fascinating convergence of Naturalism, Symbolism, and classic art, spread by the magazine “Jugend”.

Ephebes represent exactly the crucial aesthetic correspondence between nature, the purity of nudes, and juvenile freedom of expression: “A young person is savagely pushed into existence”[2] wrote Nietzsche. Filtered through Dannunzio’s poetics, Friedrich Nietzsche was another important model for Sartorio who even visited his archive in Weimar in 1895. Childhood and adolescence, poetically represented in the lively and elegant movements and the cheerful expressions of the ephebes’ faces, convey a feeling of mythical and playful desire to explore, filled with hope and dreams. The blooming laurel and the light that shines on the ephebes allude to spring, and to the sense of rebirth associated with it. Similarly, youth is exalted in the painting with exceptional grace in the composition, containing a heavenly and idyllic authenticity that seems to place the frieze in a timeless Arcadian dimension.

The choice of a frieze as a compositional genre carries with it the idea of the decorative grandeur of the majestic cycles from the beginning of the century, but at the same time represents an inner search conducted in the serenity of the family dimension. The first child on the left, with his back arched backwards in an elegant curve that ends at the tip of his feet, appeared in a 1908 study for the Parliament Frieze as he is making an offering to the allegory of a newly born Italy. In the 1926 re-elaboration of the painting the ephebe is holding in his hands a vase from which a snake is coming out.

The two children on the right instead – very bright, almost a materialisation of the light itself – are the sublimation of some intimate family moments: pictures of  Lidia (Sartorio’s daughter) taken by her father as she was playing with oleander branches, are here transformed into the image of a boy playing with laurel, and cleverly symbolise the achievement of an extreme domestic happiness between villa Horti Galateae in Rome, and the beach of Fregene[3]. The nudes of the ephebes certainly recall – especially for the harmonious movements of the boys, as flowing as the steps of a dance – the very personal classicism of the male figures in the frieze painted for the Sala del Lazio (at the 1903 Venice Biennale), the one he designed in 1904 for the Saint Louis Universal Exhibition, the frieze for the Casa del Popolo in Rome, and the one he executed in 1906 for the Sala del Lazio (at the Fine Arts Exhibition in Milan). In the painting in question – a crucial testimony of the passage to a more conscious artistic maturity achieved by Sartorio after the conflict – the monochromatic choice that expresses the idea of majestic modern classicality disappears, and very bright colours emerge. The epic and celebratory intent, as well as the solemnity of the narration, are lost while the brightness of the skin in the sunlight remains.

The laurel is no longer just a symbol of eternal glory, it becomes a festoon casually used by the boys to play. The magniloquent vocabulary is transformed into a more delicate and personal jargon, somewhere between the Apollonian and Dionysian one. Reminiscences of the Parthenon friezes studied by young Sartorio at the British Museum during his trips to London, persist: the swirling light blue drapery that wraps up the leg of the boy while he’s leaning towards the laurel, gives an idea of classicism revisited in a mannerism filtered through pre-Raphaelite language, already present in monumental friezes. In the image of the ephebes, the reuse of stylistic features and iconography already adopted in the past is the culmination of a self-quotation practice – they are reinvented in a reimagining of the classical myth, which is now filled with symbolic meanings and personal delights that mark the rebirth of the artist. The 1920s, after the end of the war, represented for Sartorio an “unexpected paradise”[4]. In this regard, in the catalogue of the posthumous exhibition organised by his wife Marga Sevilla  – which includes Frieze with Ephebes – we read: “After the war the artist returned to his work. He went to Cairo to paint a portrait of King Fuad I, he visited Palestine […]. His painting became joyful, serene, with large masses of light colours raised by flaming shades of purple and intense hues of blue. The kind woman who had just entered a new phase of her life, the two beautiful children had with her, gave him a new newly found happiness. The play of brushstrokes was again animated by juvenile vibrations […]. The paintings he his making now are among the happiest of his works, gentle with a tender, affectionate and profound grace”[5].

[1] A. M. Damigella, Immaginazione, cultura, realtà nell’arte di Sartorio, in Giulio Aristide Sartorio 1860-1932, exhibition catalogue edited by R. Miracco (Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, 24 March – 11 June 2006), Florence: Maschietto Editore/Mandragora, 2006, p. 30.

[2] F. Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872); tr. it. La nascita della tragedia dallo spirito della musica, in Opere, Milan: Adelphi, 1972, vol. III, 1, p. 25.

[3] «Today, in palingenesis, I seek to express the current situation and convey the smiles of optimism. In the hospital in Gorizia, doctor Francesco Marani also saved my right leg, which had been condemned to amputation, so that this new existence, surrounded as it is by a happy family I started after the war, seems to me an unexpected paradise…». G. A. Sartorio, Mostra personale del pittore Giulio Aristide Sartorio, Milan: Bestetti & Tumminelli, 1929, unnumbered pages.

[4] A. Sartorio, Mostra personale del pittore Giulio Aristide Sartorio, Milan: Bestetti & Tumminelli, 1929, unnumbered pages.

[5] G. Nicodemi, Prefazione alla Mostra delle opere di Giulio Aristide Sartorio raccolte da Marga Seville Sartorio, exhibition catalogue (Milan, Galleria Dedalo, November 1934), Milan: Rizzoli, 1934, p. 14.

[6] Il Duca Minimo (G. D’Annunzio), Cose d’arte. Un ventaglio, in “La Tribuna”, 11 November, 1886, now in G. D’Annunzio, Scritti giornalistici, 1882-1888, Milan 1996, pp. 671-673.



Serra, Giulio Aristide Sartorio. Pittore animalista, Turin: Edizioni d’Arte E. Celanza, 1914

Giulio Aristide Sartorio. Il realismo Plastico tra Sentimento ed Intelletto, exhibition catalogue edited by di P. A. De Rosa, P. E. Trastulli (Orvieto, Palazzo Coelli, May 8 – July 18, 2005), Orvieto: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio, 2005.

Giulio Aristide Sartorio 1860-1932, exhibition catalogue edited by R. Miracco (Rome, Chiostro del Bramante, March 24 – June 11, 2006), Florence: Maschietto Editore/Mandragora, 2006.

Sartorio. Mito e modernità, exhibition catalogue edited by G. Berardi (October 24 – December 14, 2013), Rome: Galleria Berardi, 2013.




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