MartRovereto, From 6 February to 23 May 2010

Curated by Guy Cogeval and Beatrice Avanzi

Scientific directors: Gabriella Belli, Marie-Paule Vial, Matthew Teitelbaum


The exhibition is co-produced by the Mart, by the Direction des Musées de Marseille and by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

The exhibition has been organised with the special support of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris



The theatre and the stage as the keys to a fresh view of the development of painting towards modernity.

This is the new approach offered by the exhibition, entitled “From stage to painting. The magic of theatre in 19th-century painting. From David to Delacroix and Fuseli to Degas”, a project organised thanks to the special support of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and the result once again of a collaboration between the Mart and two important international institutions, the Musée Cantini of Marseilles and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

The exhibition, a continuous dialogue between theatre and painting, leads the visitor from the end of the 17th century to the threshold of the 20th century. With this project, the Mart completes and explores the themes that lay at the centre of the The Dance of the Avant-Gardes exhibition (December 2005 - May 2006), which examined all of the 20th century in neighbouring settings, dance theatre and painting, and which enjoyed great critical and public success.


This new exhibition provides a truly unique opportunity to admire - for the first time in Italy - some of the masterpieces painted by the best European painters of the 19th century, from Jacques-Louis David to Eugène Delacroix, and from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to Edgar Degas, to mention just a few. All these artists were fascinated by the magic of theatre, which they adapted to their canvases with many suggestions inspired both by the literary themes of the commonly-performed tragedies and the highly-acclaimed melodramas of the time, and by the gestures, theatrical sets and (above all) illusionistic perspective of that world.

When compared, these works highlight how the close relationship between painting and theatre had its most significant results in that “dematerialisation of vision” that would become the predominant and radical element of theatre and also, above all, of painting in the 20th century.

There will be approximately 200 works on display, including paintings, drawings and  stage models from public and private collections throughout the world, amongst which the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Kunsthaus of Zurich, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.


The Exhibition


The 19th century was marked by an intense passion for the theatre. Indeed, as Guy Cogeval writes in his contribution to the catalogue, “for over a century and a half, European art was dominated by the demon of the stage. A theatrical dimension [can be]  shown to exist in the long march towards modernity, concentrated above all in the painted stage, on the illusionistic perspective on the basis of which characters and setting were disposed”.


In this regard, it can rightly be stated - and the exhibition demonstrates as much - that the theatre has influenced all the history of modern painting, from Neoclassicism to Impressionism and on to the early experiments of the artistic avant-garde movements of the 20th century. The relationship between theatre and painting was complex and mutually fruitful: painters like Jacques-Louis David and Delacroix certainly adopted the gestures, costumes and stage perspective of the theatre in their works, but at the same time they influenced the way theatre was performed during their time. “From stage to painting” explores this complex relationship




The exciting chronological itinerary begins with some masterpieces by Jacques-Louis David and Anne-Louis Girodet, painted at a time in which, in the France of the Enlightment and the Revolution, theatre and painting had been given a new educational role that went beyond the simple narration of the historic facts.


For many exponents of Neoclassical painting, the relationship with the theatre went well beyond simple inspiration. The actor, Talma, the greatest theatrical talent of his time, drew inspiration for his own costumes from the creations of David, which were in turn borrowed from the models of ancient Rome. In works like the Oath of the Horatii (1786), David’s “frontal’, strongly “theatrical” language explicitly suggests some models of moral virtue as an example for the new Republic.




While Jacques-Louis David and the artists of his period evoke the glorious events of the past, the Romantics painted more private passions: the works of Paul Delaroche and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres are true dramas “staged” on canvas.


Starting from the 18th century, the writings of William Shakespeare stimulated the imagination of numerous artists. An important nucleus of works, here brought together for the first time, illustrate extraordinary interpretations of Shakespeare’s drams, painted by such artists as Fuseli, Delacroix, Chassérieau and Sargent. The “love affair” for the great English playwright went on to form part of the Romantic sensibility and was already evident in the œuvre of Johann Heinrich Fuseli, the greatest interpreter of Shakespeare’s work on canvas. For it was his artistic brilliance that captured and made visible the “dark” side of tragedies like Macbeth and Hamlet. From this point of view, Fuseli’s influence on later painting was enormous, and the exhibition highlights the fact with the monumental canvas showing Lear banishing Cordelia (c. 1784-1790), which is leaving its home in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto for the first time. With his visionary interpretation of Shakespeare’s dramas, the Swiss painter anticipated not only “noir” Romanticism, but also symbolism, and in some ways even the German expressionism of the early 20th century.


Towards the end of the 19th century, the infatuation for Shakespeare’s œuvre began to weaken and academic history painting was also living its last breaths, although finding expression of a high level in works like Alexandre Cabanel’s Paolo and Francesca (1870), in which the lovers are shown dead, an expedient that removed from the scene those moral and philosophical reflections that this subject had in the past evoked. Even more radical is another painting, also dedicated to Paolo and Francesca, by Gaetano Previati in 1887, which transformed the death of the two Dantesque characters “into a squalid news report” (Guy Cogeval).


In Italia, the work of Francesco Hayez, widely represented in the exhibition, constitutes one of the most interesting examples of the relationship between art and theatre in the Romantic era: Hayez not only collaborated in the production of sets for La Scale but also borrowed styles and themes from great Italian melodrama, and in particular from Giuseppe Verdi.


Degas and realism


The exhibition continues with the “realist” revolution of Honoré Daumier and Edgar Degas, for whom the stage lost its predominant role in painting in favour of a narrative complexity making use of other protagonists. Degas did not hesitate to include the orchestra and the spectators in his pictures, thereby reducing the show to a simple decorative pretext. With Degas, the border of the canvas completely ignored the border of the stage and his painting expressed itself freely, rejecting any hierarchy of the space. Theatre still existed as a subject of inspiration, but its shift from central feature to detail marked a true revolution in the language of painting: Degas thus becomes one of the key artists of the exhibition. In works like L’orchestre de l’Opéra (circa 1870), drama is replaced by choreography “In some way”, writes Guy Cogeval, “a line is traced that links the special impressionism of Degas, formed of happenstance and the instant, to the revolution of the Ballets Russes of around 1910, which would put dance at the centre of avant-garde creativity”.




The last part of the exhibition brings us to the start of the 20th century, when the relationship with avant-garde theatrical experimentation would lead artists to the threshold of abstraction. This was a revolution anticipated already in the mid-19th century by such creative minds as Richard Wagner with his project for a total work of art. Wagnerian subjects appear, for example, in the canvases and lithographs of Henri Fantin-Latour and Odilon Redon, clearly inspired by the dream of a fusion between the arts. The generation of symbolist artists and of the Nabis painters in particular, participated in the experimental theatre of the time: Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis abandoned the more narrative aspects in favour of a greater synthesis of the vision, and it was natural for them to include the avant-garde theatre companies involved in an analogous development. Such was the case, for example, with Vuillard, who worked with Paul Fort’s Théâtre d’Art, and he was one of the founders of Lugné-Poe’s  Théâtre de l’Oeuvre. The art of the Nabis flourished at a time of radical transformation, which anticipated those close collaborative relationships between painters and set-designers as evidenced in the The Dance of the Avant-Gardes exhibition, as mentioned above. From the “synthetic vision” of Vuillard - his Les femmes dans le jardin (1891) is exemplary in this regard - we arrive at the extreme research of set-designers like Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, both great innovators of theatre who revolutionised the bonds between painting, architecture and set-design. Adolphe Appia, in particular, imagined a stage in which the actor was at one with the “spiritual scenography”, alluding to reality via stylised backdrops.


The exhibition’s epilogue - and hence also of this extraordinary relationship between painting and theatre as described by the exhibition - lies exactly at this point, in the revelation of that extreme shift towards abstraction, which would be one of the most innovative and radical developments of 20th-century European art.





Opening times

Tues. - Sun. 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.

Fri. 10 a.m. - 9 p.m.

Mondays closed

free of charge up to 18 years of age and over 65

school groups: euro 1 per pupil

family ticket (valid for all the members of a family nucleus): euro 20

free of charge for Friends of the Museum

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