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Luigi Mussini

( Berlino 1813 – Siena 1888 )


    Luigi Mussini

    Hitherto unpublished, although particularly well documented in correspondence and historical sources on the artist, this medium-format painting arouses interest and curiosity in multiple respects.  Almost an early dejeuner sur l’herbe, set in front of a Loire chateau, executed with a lively and fresh painting in perfect balance between purist poetics and Macchiaioli culture, the work is first and foremost, because of its subject matter and date of execution, a flagrant testimony to the relationships that Sienese painter Luigi Mussini forged in France with nobles, artists, and prominent intellectuals (Marquis 1978; Lombardi 2007).

    Specifically, the work documents the close relations between the now 30-year-old artist and the Aguado family, a prominent family in the Parisian social scene of the Second Empire, close to Empress Eugenia de Montijo and the circle of Napoleon III.  And in particular the artist’s acquaintance with the second son Olympe Aguado, who, only a few years later, would develop, together with his brother Onésipe, his talent and, from a noble amateur of photography, a promising pupil of the pictorialist Gustave Le Gray, would become a visionary practitioner first of the daguerreotype, then of the camera obscura, a daring experimenter in the photographic art even within the wings of the very castle reproduced in this painting. Some of his photographs, taken in the family like tableaux vivants, ironic and shrewd, will become famous: such as Admiration! and La lecture (figg.??), witty critiques of the living customs of his time, and of what is good to do in society (Olympe Aguado 1997).

    With regard to the study of the work of Luigi Mussini, who in 1851 from being a leading representative of Tuscan purism would become director of the Institute of Fine Arts in Siena, and who is considered by many to be the only Italian partner of Ingres, whose close colleague he was, moreover, for a long time (Del Bravo 1969; Sisi, Spalletti 2007), the Portrait of the Aguado family documents a hitherto little-known aspect of his activity: namely, the blending of the portrait in small with the practice of exterior painting (between the view and the landscape). Therefore, as a rare specimen of his production, produced far from home, stylistically placed at a time of transition and particular freedom of language, this work constitutes a particularly powerful testimony to the artist’s French production during the two-year period in which he moved abroad to get away, disappointed, from the political conjuncture that had seen him soldier with the Tuscan patrol at Curtatone and Montanara in the ‘Risorgimento’ War of Independence of 1848. And as he himself wrote: “when the generous and poetic movement of ’48 was shipwrecked in the whirlpools raised by the bold and ambitious sects and ruffians, I, in February of that nefarious year, discouraged and nauseated left for Paris” (Mussini 1888, p. 5).

    In the Ville lumière, where he had just arrived and complained that he had “no adherence, no support,” Mussini, thanks precisely to a full-length watercolor portrait of a French lady, executed in Florence and then shown in Paris, won a good reputation as a portrait painter and a few commissions, including that of the Aguado family, as the painter himself recounts in a letter dated October 27, 1849, to the famous statuary Lorenzo Bartolini: “Watercolor portraits fed my pot-au-feu for a while, and humbly occupied me while I was without a studio. Then I was asked by Count Aguado to go and spend the September in a castle of his in Berry to make studies for a small picture, a portrait at once of the castle (of picturesque and ancient construction) and of the holidaying family.”(Documents. Guasti Manuscript Archive, pp. 55-57, in Lorenzo Bartolini 1978, p. 179).

    The gestation of the painting, signed and dated 1850, thus began in the fall of the previous year with a visit to Grossouvre during which Mussini made the studies that would later form the basis of the “portrait of the castle, and of the family in the guise of a figurative country,” as he defines it in another missive, sent this time to his friend the sculptor Giovanni Duprè (Siena, Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati, Lettera di Luigi Mussini a Giovanni Duprè, 27/10/1849, available online at memofonte. it). The genre was interesting and also new: of outdoor family groups with ancestral homes in the background there were not many examples, neither in Italy (Falbo 2023) nor in France.

    The backdrop within which the family group is framed is, in fact, dominated by the medieval castle that the Aguado family, thanks to the fortunes of Marquis Alexandre Aguado de las Marismas (1784-1843), a banker of Spanish origin, great collector and owner of an extraordinary collection of Spanish art (Galerie Aguado 1839-47), had purchased from the Dukes of Bourbon and restored (perhaps even with the help of his friend Viollet-le-Duc) and where they would spend their vacations until 1868.

    The castle is most carefully depicted in its distinctive features, namely, with the enclosure surrounded by circular towers at the four corners connected to a late 13th-century ashlar keep, framed by two tree wings. Near these, in two deployments, is depicted the Aguado family in the company of other characters not currently recognizable.  On the left, as if just returned from a hunting trip, stand out Olympe-Clemente-Alexandre-Auguste Aguado de la Marismas (Paris 1827-Compiègne 1894) and her brother Onésipe, while on the right, the only elegantly attired woman among a draught of horsemen, looms their mother Maria de Carmen Vidoire Moreno, protected by a walking parasol. The physiognomies of these three family members are perfectly recognizable by comparison with the many self-portraits and family photographs that the two brothers executed a few years later. Perhaps included among those depicted is Luigi Mussini’s self-portrait.

    The Tuscan artist, a specialist in figure painting, history paintings, and later an imaginative composer of scenes from literature (Eudorus and Cymodoce from Chateaubriand’s Les Martyrs), experiments in this work, as never before and never elsewhere, with the en plein air setting, paying special attention both to the rendering of the verdant landscape and to the many figures who are the subject of the group portrait. He paints with compact backgrounds of color and bastes the composition with chromatic contrasts in the areas of light and shadow, yet he does not give up the purist drawing sharpness on which he had long practiced.  The effect, very effective and new, is that of a shot from life, firmly realistic, which formally deviates from Mussini’s “finished” style-and thus from the purist formal turning toward which his painting was already oriented-but maintains its own ordered internal geometry, an alternative manner then, the prodromes of which are to be traced more than in the Parisian experiences, in the Tuscan and Roman ones immediately preceding his French sojourn.

    The direction of the research of which this painting is one of the rare outcomes is well recorded in Mussini’s artistic-military activity of that fateful 1848. It was in fact the experience of the camp, as we learn from reading his letters sent to family members, that had enabled him to practice small-format portraits of comrades and superiors and landscape painting: “I believe that with Tricca [Angiolo] we will make views of the important places of the war in watercolor to make a publication, an album in colored lithography,” he wrote in a missive sent from Rivalta (Lettera di Luigi Mussini ai familiari, Rivalta, May 28, 1848, in Raimondi 1918, p. 5). In the correspondence, continuous are the requests for paper and colors and very frequent are the references to portraits which, he says, “eat me alive. Everyone would like the portrait and calls me a dear professor to no end,” evidence of a production still waiting to be traced and examined (ibid., p. 4). But in relation to the portrait of the French family, it is a letter to his brother Cesare in which Luigi Mussini expands on technical details that is of particular importance: “Meanwhile, I will perhaps make a trip with Enrico to Peschiera, where one can go in an hour or even less; I could do some watercolors there since I realized, by doing one here, that by doing from Rome onwards only portraits that are a bit finished, I have lost that frank touch and that quickness that I had acquired in doing costumes. (Letter from Luigi Mussini to his brother Cesare Mussini, Borghetto, 11/07/1848, in Raimondi 1918, pp. 31-32). Crucial in this letter is the reference to the Roman sojourn (1840-1844) and to the speed of touch of watercolor that suggests Mussini’s involvement in a practice characteristic of Capitoline artistic life, namely, painting in the open air. Beginning in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the pictorial exercise in natural light, far from being exclusive to landscape painters, was a passion shared by the entire cosmopolitan community, and for figure painters it frequently took the form of portraits painted in the urban scene or against the backdrop of the Roman countryside dotted with ruins and monuments. As Sandra Pinto already observed, such innovative practices conversed in the still grand ducal Florence, posing themselves as an alternative to the “liturgy of the Accademia”; “Compared to the immutability of this one” other schools that flourished in the fifth decade of the century could be chosen, starting with that of “Luigi Mussini and Franz Adolf von Stürler where, from 1844 to the eve of ’48, the two painters, coming from Rome, professed a now theorized and mature purism. […] In these schools ideas about the ought-to-be of art could be frankly debated; the problems of subject, of documentation, of historical custom, which in the Academy constituted the only occasion for mental activity, were put in the background compared to the more seductive ones of new formal research of which European, French and Germanic information reached or at least rebounded to Florence through Rome” (Pinto [1982] 2022, p. 383).

    It was precisely these contacts, often circumstantial, that sustained the passage “from the mystical, historicizing, content-oriented quattrocentismo of the Purists to the secular, modern, and formalistic one of the Macchiaioli,” according to the authoritative line of interpretation inaugurated by Mario Tinti who, in 1926, highlighting the preponderant role played by Mussini in the formation of the Macchiaiolo Silvestro Lega listed all those aspects of the real-“the decomposition and geometric aggregation of forms , the volumetric perspective of bodies in the simultaneity of form and color, the fluttering of light, the plastic resources of chiaroscuro – to which the Purists turned “as to categories of technical problems which they endeavored to solve by means of the observation of nature supported by the examples of the ancient Masters. It was up to the realist renewal to transport this from a field that was still too speculative and theoretical into an entirely intuitive and experimental sphere” (Mazzocca 2007, p. 63).

    More a reconciliation, then, than a revolution, the pouring of the neo-Quattrocentist graphic layout into the territory of a new “perspective synthesis” played on tonal and luminous contrasts is, in formal terms, wisely declined in the Portrait of the Aguado family, which precisely because of the “frank touch and prestezza,” carefully preserved in the finished work, and because of the prominence assigned to the landscape, must be counted among “the so-called incunabula of the macchia manifested after ’48″(Mazzocca 2007, p. 50).

    For Luigi Mussini, the Paris sojourn would be a harbinger of important recognition. On commission from the Second Empire he executed a second version of La musica sacra (Rodez, Musée des beaux-arts Denys-Puech) and initiated the painting I parentali di Platone celebrati da Lorenzo il Magnifico a Careggi (Bourg en Bresse, Musée de Brou).

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