Nino Barbantini, Segantini, Venezia, 1945, illustrated, pl. XXVIII, no. 40, as Disegno autobiografico
Maria Chirstina Gozzoli, L'Opera completa di Segantini, Rizzoli, Milano 1973, no. 344, illustrated page 116, listed on page 128, as Una Piccola Campagnia in Giardino
Annie-Paul Quinsac, Segantini, Catalogo generale, 1982, vol. I, no. 194, p. 148
Giovanni Segantini, a dominant figure in Italian Divisionism, whose visionary landscapes were inspired by a pantheist interpretation of nature, is one of the most complex protagonists of late 19th century European Symbolism. During his lifetime, his success in endowing painting with allegorical meaning endeared him to official art circles. From our perspective however, the modernity of his technique and the unique handling of composition, warrant him a place among the avant-garde leaders of the fin de siècle.
Not surprisingly, Segantini attained success at the Paris Salon and other official art venues, but like Seurat, Van Gogh and Gauguin, he counted among the very few Belgian innovators to be awarded a one man show by the revolutionary " Group des XX" in Brussels.
In his mature period, Segantini painted directly onto large canvases, without utilizing previous sketches or preparatory drawings. His methodical technique of interweaving pure colors into his compositions would take months to complete. For this reason, drawings unrelated to oil paintings are rare in his mature oeuvre.
Small Gathering in a Garden is such an exception; it is not the rethinking of an existing painting, nor is it a study for a non-realized one. It stands as a unique, independent work; furthermore, it contains a strong narrative element but was not intended as an illustration of a known text. It is drawn on the back of a printed French poem by Sully Prudhomme entitled L'amour et la mort, whose text bears no connection with Segantini's intentions in this piece: such a 'recycling' was not uncommon at the time.
As early as 1945, the critic Nino Barbantini, then director of the Biennale de Venezia, identified it as an "autobiographic drawing". I explained this interpretation in 1982, and arrived at the conclusion that it was the correct one: figures and scenery are indeed intended as references to an episode, real or imaginary, of Segantini's troubled adolescence. As the story goes, once as a rebellious teenager, Segantini attempted to flee the home of his half-brother, who was his legal guardian, in order to return to Milan to learn to paint. To do so he had entrusted his savings to his two close friends, who were supposed to accompany him in the journey but instead absconded with his money. The drawing illustrates the moment in which the decision is taken. The two "would be" companions are depicted as sinister characters, ready to take advantage of the timid youth, seated ill-at-ease in a country cafe. Even the openness of the background landscape, in contrast with the tightness of the figural grouping in the foreground, adds drama to the action.
During Segantini's successful years, he liked to embroider on events of his childhood, adding picturesque elements not always conforming to truth. Whether this anecdote, which could have been suggested to him by the reading of similar accounts in childhood fiction of the period, corresponds to a real event in his life or not, does not impact upon this iconographical reading of the drawing. The strong emotional overtone that permeates the work is achieved through stylistic means, such as the tension in the penmanship and the subtle contrast between the blacks of the pen and ink strokes and the off white tone of the reused paper. The drawing is signed three times, in ways that are not readily apparent at first glance, as if to emphasize its self-referential character. It is not dated but should be assigned to the years 1890-92, a date confirmed by the edition of Prudhomme's poem on the back, which corresponds to a turning point in Segantini's oeuvre : his resolute orientation toward Symbolism.
By its uniqueness and strong emotional expression, Small Gathering in a Garden, is an important drawing in Segantini's oeuvre.
This remarkable lost drawing is a significant rediscovery. It has not been seen by the public for over fifty years.
We are grateful to Professor Annie-Paule Quinsac for providing this catalogue note.