Filippo Carcano was born in Milan in 1840 into a middle-class Lombard family. In 1855 he enrolled at the Brera Academy and became one of Francesco Hayez’s best pupils, so much so that in 1859 he won a three-year artistic pension. He made his debut at the Brera Exhibition of 1861 with two historical subjects, and the following year he presented two more, Federico Barbarossa and Il Duca Enrico di Leone di Chiavenna, with which he won the Canonica prize.
From History Painting to Realism
In 1862, he produced his first painting of clear realist inspiration, far removed from the historical themes of academic reminiscence. It is Little Flower Girl, a young beggar girl standing on a step at the foot of the driveway of a house. The slight melancholy that pervades the atmosphere is not the only element of reality, because the real innovation is found in the precise rendering of the light that filters through the foliage of the plants and is reflected on the driveway.
The theme, which focuses on the condition of the workers and the poor, will return frequently in the production of Carcano, who was very attentive to the Italian social question at the dawn of Unity. The brushstroke is innovative because it is already devoid of contours, created with brief touches of light that at the same time accurately reflect reality.
The definitive departure from history painting occurred with the 1865 piece A Dancing Lesson, which is presented as a completely innovative painting: the cut can be defined as photographic because it is almost casual and very subjective, an element that provoked negative criticism. The same applies to A game of carom, presented in Turin in 1867, and A game of billiards in Brera in the same year.
Negative judgements followed one after the other for the painter, who was by now far removed from academic ways, but continued to send paintings to exhibitions. In 1870 he exhibited Inclination to Music and The Figaro in Turin, in 1872 in Milan A Pastime, Interior of the Church of Santa Maria near San Celso in Milan, Interior of Milan Cathedral and Idyll
Nineteenth-century Lombardy: between landscapes and genre scenes
From the mid-1870s Carcano finally began to achieve considerable commercial success, especially abroad, with his genre paintings and landscapes dedicated to Lake Maggiore or the Lombardy mountains. In 1876 he painted Morning on Lake Maggiore, and in 1877 he painted Love Verses, After the Revelry and An Amorous Walk (presented at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Naples). In 1878 he won the Mylius Prize with Good childish heart.
These landscapes were very attentive to the atmospheric and luministic rendering, and played precisely on reality, with a chromatic research unprecedented in Lombardy. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Carcano is considered one of the precursors of Lombard naturalism, enriched with personal interpretations.
Mill at Monterone, Pescarenico with snow effect, Road at Monterone, Melancholy (Pietra papale at Monterone), Cheerfulness (Pescarenico in Lake Lecco), First snows in the mountains appeared at the Turin Exhibition of 1880, guaranteeing the full affirmation of the painter, who was highly appreciated for his rendering of atmospheric variations. But his best-known work dates back to the Milan Exhibition of 1881: The Rest Hour during the Work of the 1881 Exhibition, rendered with a realistic style and a very modern outlook, with particular attention to the theme of the workers.
Landscapes dedicated to different parts of Italy, such as Venice, Pompeii, and the Asiago plateau appeared throughout the 1880s, while in the late 1890s and early 1900s realism slowly gave way to compositions of an allegorical nature. In 1897 he won the Principe Umberto Prize with Christ Kissing Mankind, exhibited at the Brera Triennale, together with Glacier of Cambrena, a painting in which the mountain, in its naturalistic vision, conceals a symbolic meaning, just as in the Divisionist experiments of the same period.
In 1906 he had a personal room at the Milan Exhibition for the Sempione Tunnel, where he presented almost fifty works summarising his career, including a series of evocative watercolours such as Snow Effect, Return from the Countryside and In the summer. In 1912 he took part in the Venice Biennial, again in a personal room with as many works including Alpine peaks, Harvesting wheat, Working in the mountains, Pescarenico in the snow, Mont Blanc and The Naviglio in Milan by night. He died in Milan in 1914.