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Lot 678: Antonio Mancini - Portrait of Miss Elizabeth Williamson
March 25, 2010
Cambridge, United KingdomLive Auction
Antonio Mancini (Italian, 1852-1930)
Portrait of Miss Elizabeth Williamson, aged 12
signed upper right "A Mancini 1908"
oil on canvas
h:124 w:66 cm
Provenance: A gift from the sitter, Miss Elizabeth Williamson, to Sir Richard Stone, and by descent
Other Notes: Elizabeth Williamson was the grand-daughter of Mrs Charles Hunter, a society hostess who owned the Villa Barbaro in Venice, and was friends with Henry James and Edith Wharton. Mrs Hunter was a collector and philanthropist of the arts, and a close friend of Sargent who painted her. It was Sargent who introduced Mancini to Mrs Hunter, and she commissioned the portrait of her grandaughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth's mother, Phyllis, was one of the three beautiful Misses Hunter painted by Sargent in 1902 and now in the Tate Gallery.
'Once you have stood in front of a Mancini painting you never forget it' - this daring claim was made by Ulrich W. Hiesinger, author of 'Antonio Mancini', in the sought-after catalogue for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Antonio Mancini exhibition in 2009. The present cherubic portrait of twelve year old Elizabeth Williamson is evidence of this.
Antonio Mancini was a tortured and impoverished artist who was born in Rome but brought up in Naples. In his day his neighbours called him "Il pittore pazzo" - the crazy painter, because of his passion for art and his disregard for social convention. In 1893 one of his contemporaries wrote: 'Mancini is … nuts, but he's a nice nut … the fact is he has a fly buzzing around in his skull'.
Despite this he was considered John Singer Sargent's favourite artist and it was on Sargent's recommendation that Mancini ventured to England where his social inadequacies were spotlighted. Mrs Hunter, sister of the noted composer Dame Ethel Amyth and wife of coal magnate Charles Hunter acted as his sponsor and protector. Mrs Hunter was a prolific supporter of artists, writers and musicians and joked that her lifetime's goal was to spend her husband's vast fortune. American writer Edith Wharton, a close friend of Mary Hunter's, describes the weekends that Mary would gather society around her as life 'on a large scale'. Mancini, with his poor command of English and unconquerable shyness, would become impenetrably silent in this grand environment and would retreat to his room to paint self portraits, many of which he later destroyed.
Mary Hunter introduced Mancini to Hugh Lane who became a great patron of Mancini's and several works are now in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Ireland. The portraits there share the marks of Mancini's graticola - or perspective grid - as shown in the present portrait of Elizabeth Williamson. The grid-like marks that show themselves across the surface of the lower parts of the painting are tributes to Mancini's obsession with perspective and the elements of tone. Mancini would construct a grid in front of the sitter and then another over his work and painted between the blocks. Perhaps due to his unconfident nature, Mancini never relinquished his grids and his thick impasto strokes are a modern, almost proto-Cubist, innovation.
Mancini takes great care over Elizabeth's rosy-cheeked face which is highlighted by white. The paint on her clothes is laid on with much more aggressive lumps of paint, the result of which suggests the conversion of light into a solid form. The painting of Elizabeth's hands and legs shows how far Mancini has moved away from his early meticulous figurative paintings in favour of work that shows his passion and anguish in every stroke.
Elizabeth was said to be a good sitter and in fact Mancini has painted her three times and her brother Charles. Oral tradition says Mancini became so aggravated by the children's governess fussing over them that he threw a tube of paint at the poor lady. Elizabeth responded in her best beginner's Italian:
' Piano … Piano, Signore !' before resuming her pose with an air of gentle scorn. The artist was so touched by her maturity that he fell on his knees to beg her forgiveness.
Mancini's graticola (string) technique is visible on the painting. The painting is in its original state and has not been cleaned.