Mariano Fortuny: what a magic-breeding name! The motto of this lucky Spanish painter might have been “Fortuny Fortunatus.” Even his sudden death, at the early age of thirty-six, came after he had executed a number of masterpieces, an enormous quantity of water-colours, etchings, ceramics, damascene swords and chased ornaments; it followed on the heels of sudden glory. His name was in the mouth of artistic Europe, and the sale of the contents of his studio at Rome in 1875 brought eight hundred thousand francs. Yet so slippery is fame that Fortuny’s name today is seldom without a brace of epithets, such as “garish,” or “empty.” His work is neither. He is a virtuoso. So was Tiepolo. He is a Romantic; so the generation preceding him. The Orientalist par excellence, he has somehow been confounded with Meissonier and Gérôme, has been called glittering like the former, hard as was the latter. It is true there are no emotional undertones in his temperament, the brilliant overtones predominating; but it is also true that when he died his manner was changing. He had said that he was tired of the “gay rags” of the eighteenth century, and his Strand of Portici shows a new line of departure. Edouard Manet made special appeal to Fortuny; Manet, who had derived from Goya, whose Spanish fond is undeniable. Perhaps the thrice brilliant Fortuny’s conscience smote him when he saw a Frenchman so successfully absorbing the traditions of Goya; but it was not to be. He passed away at the very top of his renown, truly a favourite of the gods. He was admired, imitated, above all parodied; though, jealously as are his pictures guarded, he has been put on the shelf like one of the amazing painted bibelots in his work.
The injustice of this is patent. Between Fortuny and Meissonier there lies the gulf that separates the genius and the hard-working man of talent. Nevertheless Meissonier’s statue is in the garden of the Louvre, Meissonier is extolled as a master, while Fortuny is usually described in patronising terms as a facile trifler. The reverse is the truth. No one has painted sunlight with more intensity; he was an impressionist before the word was coined. He is a colourist almost as sumptuous as Monticelli, with a precision of vision never attained by the Marseilles rhapsodist. His figures are as delicious as Watteau’s or Debucourt’s he recalls the latter frequently – and as an Orientalist he ranks all but a few. Gérome, Guillaumet, Fromentin, Huguet are not to be mentioned in the same breath with Fortuny as to the manipulation of material; and has Guillaumet done anything savouring more of the mysterious East than Fortuny’s At the Gate of the Seraglio ? The magician of jewelled tones, he knew all the subtler modulations. His canvases vibrate, they emit sparks of sunlight, his shadows are velvety and warm. Compared with such a picture as The Choice of a Model, the most laboriously minute Meissonier is as cold and dead as a photograph Meissonier, who was a capital fan painter, a patient miniaturist without colour talent, a myopic delineater of cos tumes, who, as Manet said; pasted paper soldiers on canvas and called the machine a battlefield.
The writer recalls the sensations once evoked by a close view of Fortuny’s Choice of a Model at Paris years ago, and at that time in the possession of Mr. Stewart. Psychology is not missing in this miracle of virtuosity; the nude posing on the marble table, the absolute beauty of the drawing, the colouring, the contrast of the richly varie-gated marble pillars in the background, the eighteenth-century costumes of the Academicians so scrupulously yet so easily set forth, all made a dazzling ensemble. Since Fortuny turned the trick a host of spurious pictures has come over-seas, and we now say “Vibert” at the same time as “Fortuny,” just as some enlightened persons couple the names of Ingres and Bouguereau. In the kingdom of the third rate the mediocre is conqueror.
Listen to this description of La Vicaria (The Spanish Wedding), which first won for its painter his reputation. Begun in 1868, it was exhibited at Goupil’s, Paris, the spring of 1870 (some say 1869), when the artist was thirty-two years old. Théophile Gautier whose genius and Théodore de Banville’s have analogies with Fortuny’s in the matter of surfaces and astounding virtuosity went up in the air when he saw the work, and wrote a feuilleton that is still recalled by the old guard. The following, however, is not by Gautier, but from the pen of Dr. Richard Muther, the erudite German critic: “A marriage is taking place in the sacristy of a rococo church in Madrid. The walls are covered with faded Cordova leather hangings figured in gold and dull colours, and a magnificent rococo screen separates the sacristy from the middle aisle. Venetian lustres are suspended from the ceiling, pictures of martyrs, Venetian glasses in carved oval frames hang on the wall, richly ornamented wooden benches and a library of missals and gospels in sparkling silver clasps, and shining marble tables and glistening braziers form part of the scene in which the marriage contract is being signed. The costumes are those of the time of Goya. An old beau is marrying a young and beautiful girl. With affected grace and a skipping minuet step, holding a modish three-cornered hat under his arm, he approaches the table to put his signature in the place which the escribano points out with an obsequious bow. He is arrayed in delicate Iilac, while the bride is wearing a white silk dress trimmed with flowered lace and has a wreath of orange blossoms in her luxuriant black hair. As a girl friend is talking to her she ex-amines with abstracted attention the pretty little pictures upon her fan, the finest she ever possessed. A very piquant little head she has, with her long lashes and black eyes. Then, in the background, follow the witnesses, and first of all a young lady in a swelling silk dress of the brightest rose colour. Beside her is one of the bridegroom’s friends in a cabbage-green coat with long flaps and a shining belt, from which a gleaming sabre hangs. The whole picture is a marvellous assemblage of colours in which tones of Venetian glow and strength, the tender pearly gray beloved of the Japanese, and a melting neutral brown each sets off the other and gives a shimmering effect to the entire mass.”
Fortuny was a gay master of character and comedy as well as of bric-a-brac. Still life he painted as no one before or after him; if Chardin is the Velasquez of vegetables, Fortuny is the Rossini of the rococo; such lace-like filigrees, fiorturi, marbles that are of stone, men and women that are alive, not of marble (like Alma-Tadema’s). The artificiality of his work is principally in the choice of a subject, not in the performance. How luminous and silky are his blacks may be noted at the Metropolitan Museum in his portrait of a Spanish lady. There is nothing of the petit-maitre in the sensitive and adroit handling of values. The rather triste expression, the veiled look of the eyes, the morbidezza of the flesh tones, and the general sense of amplitude and grace give us a Fortuny who knew how to paint broadly. The more obvious and dashing side of him is present in the Arabian Fantaisie of the Vanderbilt Gallery. It must be remembered that he spent some time copying, at Madrid, Velasquez and Goya, and as Camille Mauclair enthusiastically declares, these copies are literal “identifications.” They are highly prized by the Marquise Carcano (who owned the Vicaria), Madrazo, and the Baron Davillieu the last named the chief critical authority on Fortuny.
In the history of the arts there are cases such as Fortuny’s, of Mozart, Chapin, Raphael, and some others, whose precocity and prodigious powers of production astonished their contemporaries. For tuny, whose full name was Mariano José Maria Bernardo Fortuny y Carbo, was born at Reus, a little town in the province of Tarragona, near Barcelona. He was very poor, and at the age of twelve an orphan. His grandfather, a carpenter, went with the lad on foot through the towns of Catalonia exhibiting a cabinet containing wax figures painted by Mariano and perhaps modelled by him. He began carving and daubing at the age of five; a regular little fingersmith, his hands were never idle. He secured by the promise of talent a pension of forty-two francs a month and went to Barcelona to study at the Academy. Winning the prize of Rome in r857, he went there and copied old masters until 186o, when, the war between Spain and Morocco breaking out, he went to Morocco on General Prim’s staff, and for five or six months his brain was saturated with the wonders of Eastern sunlight, exotic hues, beggars, gorgeous rugs, snake-charmers, Arabs afoot or circling on horseback with the velocity of birds, fakirs, all the huge glistening febrile life he was later to interpret with such charm and exactitude.
He returned to Rome. He made a second trip to Africa. He returned to Spain. Barcelona gave him a pension of a hundred and thirty-two francs a month, which amount was kept up later by the Duke de Rianzarès until 1867. He went to Paris in 1866, was taken up by the Goupils, knew Meissonier and worked occasionally with Gérôme. His rococo pictures, his Oriental work set Paris ablaze. He married the daughter of the Spanish painter Federigo Madrazo, and visited at Madrid, Granada, Seville, Rome, and, in 1874, London. He contracted a pernicious fever at Rome and died there, November 21, 1874, at the age of thirty-six. His funeral was imposing, many celebrities of the world of art participating. He was buried in the Campo Varano.
In 1866 at Rome he began etching, and in fifteen months finished a series of masterpieces. His line, surprisingly agile and sinuous, has the finesse of Goya – whom he resembled at certain points. He used aquatint with full knowledge of effects to be produced, and at times he recalls Rembrandt in the depth of his shadows. His friend the painter Henri Regnault despaired in the presence of such versatility, such speed and ease of workmanship. He wrote: “The time I spent with Fortuny is haunting me still. What a magnificent fellow he is! He paints the most marvellous things, and is the master of us all. I wish I could show you the two or three pictures he has in his hand or his etchings and water-colours. They inspired me with a real disgust of my own. Ah, Fortuny, you spoil my sleep!”
Standing aloof from the ideas and tendencies of his times and not a sweeper of the chords that stir in human nature the heroic or the pathetic, it is none the less uncritical to rank this Spaniard as a brainless technician. Everything is relative, and the scale on which Fortuny worked was as true a medium for the exhibition of his genius as a museum panorama. Let us not be misled by the worship of the elephantine. It is characteristic of his temperament that the big battle piece he was commissioned by the Barcelona Academy to paint was never finished. Not every one who goes to Rome does as the Romans do. Dowered by nature with extraordinary acuity of vision, with a roman tic, passionate nature and a will of steel, Fortuny was bound to become a great painter. His manual technique bordered on the fabulous, he had the painter’s hand, as his fellow-countryman Pablo de Sarasate had the born hand of the violinist. That he spent the brief years of his life in painting the subjects he did is not a problem to be posed, for, as Henry James has said, it is always dangerous to challenge an artist’s selection of subject. Why did Goya conceive his Caprichos? The love of decorative beauty in Fortuny was not be-dimmed by criticism. He had the lust of eye which not the treasures of Ormuz and Ind, or ivory, apes, and peacocks, could satisfy. If he loved the kaleidoscopic East, he also knew his Spain. We have seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts a tiny picture, the court-yard of a Spanish inn through which passes a blinding shaft of sun-light, which would make envious Senor Sorolla. Fortuny has personal charm, a quality usually missing nowadays, for painters in their desire to be truthful are tumbling head over heels into the prosaic. Individuality is vanishing in the wastes of an over-anxious realism. If Fortuny is a daring virtuoso on one or two strings, his palette is ever enchanting. Personally he was a handsome man, with a distinguished head, his body broad and muscular and capable of enduring fatigues that would have killed most painters. Allied to this powerful physique was a seductive sensibility. This peasant-born painter was an aristocrat of art. Old Mother Nature is an implacable ironist. Mariano Fortuny @ Wikipedia