A prominent figure in the tradition of late nineteenth century Spanish painting, Mariano Fortuny was one of the first of his milieu to embrace modern precepts of light and color. Renowned for his picturesque genre scenes depicting daily life in Spain and North Africa, he combined dashing brushwork and vibrant colors with a direct realist style rooted in the art of Spanish masters such as Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez.
Born in Reus, in Spain’s Catalonia region, Fortuny was orphaned at an early age. Encouraged by his paternal grandfather, he began studying drawing at age twelve, after which time he received instruction in oil and watercolor techniques from Domingo Soberano, an amateur painter. His early training also included art lessons taken at the studio of Antonio Bassa, a local silversmith and miniaturist.
In 1852, Fortuny went to Barcelona, attending the Escuela de Bellas Artes and studying in the atelier of Claudio Lorenzale y Sugranes, a disciple of the German painter Friedrich Overbeck. Fortuny initially worked in the tight, idealizing manner of Overbeck; however, seeking to develop a more personal style of painting he went to Rome in 1858, studying and copying the work of Old Masters such as Velázquez and Goya, whose uncompromising realism deeply affected his work.
In 1860, Fortuny was sent to Morocco to record battle scenes of the Spanish-Moroccan war. The trip marked a turning point in his aesthetic evolution: responding to the lush coloration, exotic subjects, and brilliant luminosity of his surroundings, he evolved a livelier, more naturalistic style characterized by dazzling colors and fluid brushwork. The pencil sketches, watercolors, and small oils he produced during his visit served as reference sources for a number of large-scale canvases, among them The Battle of Tetueán (1862; Museo d’Art Moderne, Barcelona), a multi-figured composition depicting Spain’s victory over the Moroccans. Fortuny’s link with Orientalism was reinforced by a second trip to Morocco in 1862, where he continued to paint scenes of North African life.
Upon returning to Rome, Fortuny’s brushwork took on a greater degree of fluency while his palette became even brighter. In the ensuing years, he formed part of a circle of progressive-minded Spanish and Italian artists—including Raimundo Madrazo, Martin Rico, and Edouardo Zamaçois—who eschewed conventional academic styles in favor of an art based on light and color. Fortuny’s rise to international fame was given a major boost in 1868, when he signed a lucrative contract with the Paris art dealer Adolphe Goupil, who promoted his work through exhibitions in his Montmartre gallery and produced photogravure reproductions of many of his paintings. During these years, he painted festive scenes of Spanish life, including small-scale “frockcoat” (historical genre) pictures which led to the style known as “Fortunismo.”
Fortuny’s 1870 exhibition at Goupil’s gallery was especially significant, for it provoked much admiration among critics, including Théophile Gautier, who called him a “painter of marvelous originality” and noted his ability to combine “the fantastic liberty of a Spanish painter and all the scrupulous truth of a French painter; it is necessary to add the individuality of Fortuny who makes vibrate the note between the two influences which do not dominate it.” 1 The exhibition prompted a number of French artists, such as Gustave Doré and Jehan-Georges Vilert, to adopt a lush palette, fluent brushwork, and joyful subjects. Fortuny’s work also set an example for many American painters, among them Robert Blum, William Merritt Chase, and Harry Humphrey Moore, to name only a few. He was also tremendously popular with foreign art patrons, especially the Philadelphia-born collector William Hood Stewart, who acquired over thirty of his works.
Fortuny settled in Granada in 1870. In addition to producing his colorful paintings, he began collecting art and developed an interest in the applied arts. In 1872, after a third visit to Morocco, he and his family returned to Rome. A year later they moved into the Villa Martibori, which Fortuny transformed into a museum to house his art collection.
Fortuny’s career was cut short by his sudden death in Rome in 1874, at the age of thirty-six. His funeral received extensive coverage in the American press, one of the most telling tributes appearing in the New York Sun, whose writer observed: “In his contempt for the conventional and his happy use of gay colors, he was already as great as Goya.” 2
Fortuny is represented in public collections throughout Europe and the United States, including the Museo del Prado, Madrid; Casón del Buen Retiro, Barcelona; the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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1. Théophile Gautier, Journal officiel, May 19, 1870.
2. “Mariano Fortuny,” New York Sun, March 27, 1881.