A “fashionable painter”, a ‘”master of his technique who never doubts, when he begins a portrait, that the portrait will be good”, this is how Ugo Ojetti described Vittorio Matteo Corcos in a long interview given in the spring of 1907 and published in the columns of “L’Illustrazione Italiana” (Il conte Ottavio 1907, pp. 377-380). Having trained at the Academy in Florence and Domenico Morelli’s school in Naples, Corcos had perfected his skills in Paris in Léon Bonnat’s atelier and had entered Adolphe Goupil’s circle, becoming one of the most sought-after peintre de femmes, in the wake of his fellow countrymen Giuseppe De Nittis and Giovanni Boldini, as well as the author of graceful genre paintings. Back in Italy in 1884, he devoted himself to portraits from the mid 1890s, achieving undisputed fame. From the beginning of the 20th century he became the painter of both Italian aristocracy (Countess Carolina Sommariga Maraini, 1901, Rome Foundation for the Swiss Institute; Princess Spada Potenziani, 1903, Moncalieri, private collection; Countess Anna Rombo Morosini, 1903, private collection; Princess Olga Cantacuzene, 1904, private collection; Anita Vollert de’ Ghislanzoni and Maddalena Parodi Vollert, 1912, Milan, Museo Louis Braille, Istituto dei Ciechi; Marquis Riccardo Mannelli Galilei Riccardi, 1915, private collection) and international aristocrats who attended the Florentine salons, including Emperor Guglielmo II and his wife, Queen Amelia of Portugal, Princess Maria Josè of Savoy (1931, private collection), as well as intellectuals, politicians and artists (Pietro Mascagni, 1891, Mascagni family; Lina Cavalieri, 1903, Florence, private collection). At the height of his celebrity, during the long interview of 1907, he described his working method. A first meeting over breakfast with his model (“At the table, the most poised lady [… ] moves, becomes less tense, reveals herself as she might never do in a conversation of many hours in her drawing room”) (Il conte Ottavio 1907, pp. 377-380), was followed by an initial session of posing during which Corcos executed a few drafts to make a sketch from life and took a number of photographs in order to compose the painting; he then returned to work with the model for two or three sittings, without fear of having to start again if the model didn’t like it (“If, at the penultimate sitting, I discover that I don’t like something in my painting, or if I notice in the commissioner something I like more than what I have already seen or noted, I start again without fear”) (Il conte Ottavio 1907, pp. 377-380).
Vittorio Corcos’ portraits followed the evolution of Italian and international high society for more than thirty years, shaping the elegance of the Belle Époque, but also the restlessness of the early post-war period. Born in Leghorn on 4 October 1859 to Isacco Corcos and Giuditta Baquis – who belonged to the local Jewish community – he trained at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence with Enrico Pollastrini and then went on to specialise in 1878 in Naples under the guidance of Domenico Morelli. He moved to Paris in 1880, where he attended Giuseppe De Nittis’ salon and met Zola, Edmond de Gouncourt, Daudet, Degas and Manet. He then signed a contract with Maison Goupil and went to Léon Bonnat’s studio, through whom he approached portraiture. Bonnat’s lesson is evident in Portrait of Garibaldi (Leghorn, Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori), commissioned in 1882 by the Municipality of Leghorn. Within Maison Goupil’s art system, he distinguished himself as a refined interpreter of the female universe described through portraits, as well as fascinating (The Elegant, 1888, private collection) and sometimes disturbing (The morphine addict, 1899, private collection) figures and moments of everyday life (The Newborn, 1884, private collection; Visit to the Museum, c. 1890-95, private collection; The Governesses at the Champs Elysées, 1892, Carpi, Palazzo Foresti). He was at the Paris Salon in 1881, 1882 and 1885, and in 1884 he also established contacts with the English market. On his return to Italy in 1884 to do his military service, he married Emma Ciabatti and moved to Florence. Having become a renowned portrait painter, in 1889 he executed portraits of the journalist Yorik (Leghorn, Museo Civico Giovanni Fattori) and Silvestro Lega (Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna) and again in the following decade The portrait of Pietro Mascagni (1891, private collection) and Giosuè Carducci (1892, Bologna, Casa Carducci). In 1896, Corcos achieved considerable success at the Florentine exhibition Festa dell’Arte e dei Fiori with the painting Dreams, purchased by the National Gallery of Modern Art. The painting, representative of the Belle Époque, caused a sensation due to the unconventional pose of the model Elena Vecchi, daughter of the writer Augusto Vecchi, who sits on a bench with three books and a walking umbrella beside her. From 1898 he stayed for a long time in Castiglioncello, where he built a house on the promontory towards Punta Righini. In 1900 he began to collaborate with the magazine “Il Marzocco”. In the first decades of the 20th century his activity as a portrait painter became increasingly intense. He died in Florence on 8 November 1933.
Teresa Sacchi Lodispoto