Thursday, October 9, 2014

Casanova: illustrated by Umberto Brunelleschi

Umberto Brunelleschi was an Italian born, French-based artist who was one of the great illustrators of the female figure in the first half of the twentieth century.

His women were always sinuously sensual but towards the end of his life he did some more overtly erotic works including this superb set of illustrations for the story of Casanova.  This limited edition was published in two volumes in 1955, after Brunelleschi's death. 

Although we have identified most of these pictures as coming from the Gibert Jeune edition there is a chance some of them, although being eighteenth century in setting, are not from this edition.  At least one picture was from a planned later edition that was never published.

Gently erotic, rather than explicit, they nevertheless contain all the powdered wigs, heaving bosoms, ornate dresses and stockings you could wish for in a set of eighteenth century-set illustrations.

The fact that the book was published over five years after Brunelleschi's death might explain the variety of styles shown, in that they may well have been done over an extended period of time and, possibly, not all may have been drawn specifically for the book.

Umberto Brunelleschi was born in Montemurlo in Tuscany on June 21st 1879, the son of an insurance agent and went on to study at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence.  In 1900, unimpressed by the formal academic artistic world in Florence, he moved to Paris and, essentially, lived and worked there until his death.

He did spend some time back in Italy and in Germany and America but it was essentially Paris that was his home.

Shortly after arriving in Paris, and being a talented but impecunious artist, he found illustration was a good way to make money. He found work providing illustrations for the weekly satirical and gossip newspaper Le Rire which was published from 1894 until 1950.

In 1902 he started producing illustrations for the weekly French satirical magazine L'assiette au beurre which had been founded by French publisher Samuel Schwarz-Sigismund the previous year. A left wing, even anarchist, publication it had a large group of artists producing its mainly graphic content of drawings, caricatures (which Brunelleschi specialised in) and cartoons.  Perhaps because of the nature of the magazine, Brunelleschi often used the pseudonym Harun-al-Rashid.

From 1906 to 1910 he also started exhibiting in the Salon des Indépendants which had been set up in 1884 by  a group of artists (including Georges Seurat) who did not want to have to accede to the taste of the jury used by the Paris Salon.  Many impressionists exhibited there.

Brunelleschi contributed to many other publications including: Journal des Dames et Des Modes, La Vie Parisienne, Femina, La Caricature, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Le Monde Illustré and Les Feuillets d'Art.  He was also a regular contributor to the  Gazette du Bon Ton which was an influential early fashion magazine.  It was certainly an influence on Condé Montrose Nast who transformed the minor society magazine Vogue into the major fashion magazine it became and for which Brunelleschi provided illustrations in due course.

Brunelleschi, who was very much part of the poetic milieu found in the Latin Quarter, eventually became artistic director of the short-lived  La Guirlande de l'art et de la littérature (1919-1920).

He also did illustrations for Italian, Spanish, English and American magazines, including Il Giornalino della Domenica, Harper’s Bazaar, The Tatler and Vanity Fair.

By 1912 Brunelleschi was largely devoting himself to book illustration, having developed a clean, graphic style influenced by a number of sources including Whistler and Japanese prints.

AN important event occurred in his life when he was contacted by Madame Rasimi, a leading actress-manager, to create the costumes for a revue she was organising at the Bouffes Parisiens theatre.  Brunelleschi had been influenced by the designers Serge Diaghilev had been using, particularly Léon Bakst, although Brunelleschi's colours were less strident.

In 1914, shortly before the Great War began, Brunelleschi expanded his theatrical horizons by designing the set for the first act of Rasimi's revue Y'a d'Jolies Femmes.

The same year, and apposite to this post, he exhibited at the Venice Biennale with a series of illustrations on eighteenth century Venetian subjects.

Brunelleschi volunteered for military service and served in the Italian Third Army for the duration of the war but continued to produce artworks and even took commissions, including an album of illustrations of the costumes and characters of the Commedia dell'Arte.

Brunelleschi returned to Paris after the war and carried on working on costume and set designs for the theatre in France, Germany, Italy and America; including La Scala, the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Casino de Paris and even the Folies Bergère.

In fact, the composer Giacomo Puccini wrote to him in 1924 begging him to produce the costumes for his new opera Turandot.  In the end, internal politics played their part and Turandot was premiered with more conventional costumes by La Scala's in-house designer.

He did work for La Scale, though, producing designs for a production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers in 1938.  He eventually got his shot at Turandot with a production in Florence in 1940.

The Florentine newspaper, La Nazione, wrote: "Umberto Brunelleschi has conjured up a dazzling Turandot: his fantastical ingenuity. marked by an elegant richness of form and colour. has been allowed to fulfill itself in the portrayal of the Chinese surroundings...this is a dream China, a phantasmogoric fairy tale vision, with elements of the Commedia dell'Arte."

He also designed many of the costumes for the famous America dancer Josephine Baker, who first led the review at the Folies Bergère in 1927.

Later in his life, as well as his stage work, he was kept busy on book illustration, however, and provided the illustrations for over thirty books by a wide range of authors such Hans Christian Andersen, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Charles Perrault, Jean de La Fontaine, and Goethe.  He illustrated Boccaccio's  Decameron and Voltaire's  Candide, as well as Casanova.

After the second world war Brunelleschi's style was seen as old fashioned and he dropped out of the limelight. His fantastic and dream-like pictures chiming a dissonant chord with a post war Europe in ruins.  He continued to do some book illustration and we suspect these pictures are from that period.  He died on 16th February, 1949.

The book in which these pictures appeared wasn't published until six years after his death and so it seems unlikely that they were done specifically for this project.

Also, as can be seen, there are several different styles in evidence so perhaps the publisher just collected a series of pictures done by Brunelleschi over time for his edition.

Whatever their history they present a beautiful evocation of the sensual delights of a past world, drawing on Brunelleschi's deep interest in Venetian history and style.

Self-portrait (1904)

We'll look at more of Brunelleschi's elegant women another time.


  1. Beautiful - I recognise some of those from a set of smart postcards I picked up in an antique bookshop in Venice last year...

  2. Brunelleschi at his best - sometimes his work is a bit boring.