Roberto Bompiani

(Roma 1821 - 1908)

Roman matron with mirror

Measures: 33 x 24,5 cm

Technique: oil on canvas

Signed top left: “ Bompiani”

Provenance: English Art market

An artist with an academic background, Roberto Bompiani (Rome 1821 – 1908) directed his language towards the taste of the refined travellers who resided in the Eternal City, in the wake of Bougerau and Alma-Tadema. His first relations with the international market date back to the mid 1850s, when he participated in the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855 and sent five canvases on a religious subject to Spain. His accurate technique was appreciated in official Roman circles: he worked for Prince Marcantonio Borghese, for the building site of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, he painted the ceiling of the nave of San Lorenzo in Lucina and a fresco for Santa Maria in Trastevere, in 1862 he was commissioner of the papal government for the London Exhibition and in 1870 he was chosen along with some of the best Roman artists for the decoration of the cathedral in Santiago de Chile and for the opera house, and in the same city he also painted The Dance and The Tragedy. Also intense was his work as a portrait painter for the international aristocracy (Lady Emily Curzon, circa 1851; Count Charles Cousin de Montauban de Palikao; Mercy Bourciault Casey, 1864; Eugenia Chouteau, 1871). In 1865, he presented A Follower of Bacchus, the first in a long series of Neopompeian subjects, at the annual exhibition of the Società degli Amatori e Cultori delle Belle Arti in Rome. His academic training led him to approach this genre with philological rigour. This resulted in paintings that were highly appreciated by contemporary critics, who recognised his “accurate study of antiquity and nature” (Donati 1876, p.178). Bompiani meticulously describes the game of astragals, the banquets (A roman feast, Los Angeles, Getty Museum), the banks of the Tiber (Am ufer des Tiber, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna) and the use of the morning greeting by the patrons (Salutatio matutina, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna). In lesser works, often interior portraits with a female figure, he dwells on the description of architecture and furnishings, which he studied on finds from Rome and Pompeii: “He prefers the life of ancient Rome above all other subjects for his canvases.

He interrogates the precious monuments of Roman antiquity, he wanders through the dwellings, temples, forums, and basilicas exhumed from their centuries-old tombs, he is thrilled by the ruins of the palace of the Caesars, and the uncovered houses of Tiberius and Diomedes and  – both in Rome and Pompeii – he always draws beautiful inspirations for his paintings from the accurate study of antiquity and nature” (Donati 1876, p.178). In the mid 1870s, his success was sealed by the Paris Salon, where he was presented by the Maison Goupil in 1875, and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. In reviewing the American exhibition, Edward Strahan noted “The spirit of ancient Italy is revived in these solitary figures, somewhat in the style of Alma-Tadema’s marvelous restorations of antique life” (Strahan 1876, p.176). Appreciated in Italy and sought after abroad, his studio was visited by collectors and travellers visiting the eternal city: “at 504 Corso, far back from the busy street, is the studio of Roberto Bompiani, one of the most amiable and courteous gentlemen in Rome. […] Professor Bompiani’s pictures are scattered in many countries” (Comtesse de Jacournassy 1891).

To the international market, the British one in this case, is destined this elegant panel that blends the gold background of a Pre-Raphaelite taste with a Neo-Pompeian subject. This work is almost certainly contemporary with an altarpiece depicting Saint Lucy (private collection – Bonhams Auction, European Paintings, New York 4 May 2011, lot 66), also painted on a gold background, featuring the same model. The gold background and the use of the panel as a support, which seem appropriate for a religious subject, are unusual for a Neo-Pompeian painting and show Bompiani’s refined eclecticism. The format, the dimensions, and the frame with raceme decorations that echo the decorative motif of the background, recall the small panels with a religious theme destined for domestic devotion in the 14th and 15th centuries. However, the artist breaks with tradition and places a purely profane theme in a formal religious context.

The classicist and Raphaelesque tradition of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome – clearly visible in the gently idealised features of the matron – merges with a passion for Anglo-Saxon primitive painting and neo-Pompeian archaeology which in the Rome of the 1870s, when the city was involved in large excavation campaigns linked to the construction of the districts of the new capital of Italy, reached a level of extreme philological accuracy that earned Bompiani the position of member of the Municipal Archaeological Commission. Archaeology and art history are, therefore, the cornerstones of this painting intended for an educated target market, such as the British one in the last decades of the 19th century. The head and hands of the female figure are a true piece of bravura that reveals Bompiani’s skilful and solid technique. The head slightly turned to the left with the ear accurately outlined in the foreground, the harmony of the different elements, the rosy complexion, the perfectly proportioned nose, the design of the mouth, are all elements of a tradition that runs from Raphael to Domenichino, who were the tutelary deities of the Roman academy in the 19th century. If, indeed, the references to Italian painting must have been obvious to the collector’s eye, equally meticulous is the description of the objects. The marital status of the young matron is indicated by the ribbon hairstyle. The simplicity of the jewellery – a hoop earring, a gold necklace that can barely be seen under the blue cloak and two gold bracelets – together with the mirror, give the composition an intimate, domestic tone. The central element is the mirror or “speculum”, an essential element, together with jewellery and cosmetics, of every bride’s trousseau. The detail of the ear reflected in the shiny surface of the metal mirror is virtuosic.

Teresa Sacchi Lodispoto



Donati, Roberto Bompiani, “L’Illustrazione Italiana”, III, 1876, 43, p. 178.

E. Strahan, The masterpieces of the Centennial International Exhibition Illustrated. Fine Art, I, Philadelphia, Gebbie&Barrie, 1876, p. 176

Comtesse de Jacournassy, The Artist of Rome, “The Seattle Post-Intelligence”, 6 maggio 1891.



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