Angelo Morbelli was born into a wealthy family in Alessandria. In 1867, having demonstrated his artistic talents, he obtained a scholarship from his municipality, thanks to which he was able to move to Milan to attend the Brera Academy. Here, he trained under Raffaele Casnedi and Giuseppe Bertini and soon became friends with Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo.
He made his debut at Brera in 1874 with the verista painting Interno del coro del monastero Maggiore in Milan. While in 1875 he exhibited La Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan: for the realisation of this canvas he had used a photograph, a practice much used by Morbelli, who at the end of his career would experiment a great deal with the photographic medium as an artistic source in its own right.
In 1879, in Turin, he exhibited Sito remoto del giardino and Lezione meritata, while in 1881, in Milan, he showed a series of paintings of an anecdotal genre, before going down the road of Divisionist technique and the social engagement of themes. He continued in this vein for much of the 1880s, but when he entered the circle of painters promoted by Vittore Grubicy de Dragon, Morbelli’s pictorial turning point occurred.
His research into colour and light began and, above all, he approached dramatic themes, closely related to the problem of hospices for the poor and elderly.
Already in 1883 at the Promotrice di Belle Arti in Genoa, he had presented the painting Giorni Ultimi (Last Days), the first of many dedicated to the so-called ‘old people’ theme, which, among other things, won him the Fumagalli Prize and in 1889 the gold medal at the Paris Exhibition. It was this work that gave rise to the social and realistic investigation that Morbelli conducted in the Pio Albergo Trivulzio hospice for the elderly, which he frequented and studied for the rest of his life.
He shared the social question with artists such as Pellizza, Longoni and Sottocornola and, like them, became one of the greatest representatives of Divisionism. Stimulated by Grubicy, he experimented strongly with luministic effects, creating a vaporous and dusty division of colours that clothed the figures with a protective aura, as if they were distant in time and space.
The theme of old age is masterfully treated in the cycle The Poem of Old Age, consisting of the pendant Mi ricordo quando ero fanciulla and Il Natale dei rimasti and then Sedia vuota, I due inverni, Siesta invernale and Le due calzette presented at the 1903 Venice Biennale. They are then crowned by the last painting presented at the 1905 Biennale, Dream and Reality, accompanied by The Fates.
The theme of old age is flanked by research into the social question and work in general, in paintings such as S’avanza, dedicated to the allegory of death silently catching up with a girl suffering from consumption, and 80 cents, which deals with the work of the mondine.
These, presented in 1896 at the Turin Triennale, anticipate canvases such as Per sempre, Le ultime mosse and Una partita interessante exhibited in Milan in 1907. In the 1910s, Divisionist technique reached a very high level, involving not only the heartfelt eschatological and symbolic themes of humanity, but also pure and simple landscapes.
In fact, he often took refuge in Colma di Monferrato, from where he produced a series of moving views characterised by a perfect and visionary Divisionism: examples are Morning and Afternoon at Sunset sent to Venice in 1910, but also Sunset at Burano, Last Snow and Among the Gypsies. The painting of Dantean reminiscence, with the title Era già l’ora che volge al desio, a melancholic, twilight landscape, was presented at the 1910 exhibition of the Società Amatori e Cultori delle Belle Arti.
From 1912, Morbelli wrote the diary La via crucis del Divisionismo (The Way of the Cross of Divisionism), in which he included a series of acute personal reflections on Divisionism. He died in Rome in 1919.