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Vincenzo Gemito

Italian, 1852 - 1929

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Vincenzo Gemito, born in Naples in 1852, is considered to be the most important Italian sculptor of the late nineteenth century and is increasingly regarded as one of its greatest draughtsmen. His origins were unpromising. An orphan street child until he was adopted by a poor artisan, he was put out as an assistant to the sculptor Emanuele Caggiano at the age of nine. He then attached himself informally to the older but more progressive sculptor Stanislao Lista, who apparently encouraged him to work from street models.

Having acquired the skills of modeling in clay and wax, the young man set himself up independently. In 1868 he exhibited a sculpture at the Promotrice di Belle Arti in Naples, The Card Player, that showed a Neapolitan urchin scratching his head and studying a hand of cards. The work had the signal good fortune to attract the attention of Victor Emmanuel II, king of Italy, who purchased a bronze cast of it for the Capodimonte collection, a notable honor for the sixteen-year-old sculptor.

Gemito cultivated a kind of rugged realism in the interpretations of his subjects, conveyed by contrasting rough and smooth surfaces. His drawing oeuvre kept pace with his sculpture, and what has appropriately been termed his "naturalistic bizarrerie" is seen in 1876 in the terra-cotta Chinese Acrobat and also in a series of pen-and-ink studies of nude fisher boys, which culminated in the life-size bronze Little Fisher Boy (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). From 1877 to 1881 Gemito lived in Paris, where he was a friend of the sculptor Ernest Meissonnier, whose work could not have been more different from his own. On his return to Naples he incorporated another thread of tradition into his work, that of his classical predecessors in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which resulted in the bronze sculpture Water Carrier (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome). In 1883 he set up his own bronze foundry for lost-wax casting. The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns an over-life-size bronze bust of his patron, Baron Oscar de Mesnil, executed "in 12 hours" in 1885 (E1990-91-1). Gemito's style did not lend itself to grandiloquent public monuments, and he produced only one such large-scale work, the marble Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, commissioned by Umberto I, son of Victor Emmanuel II, as part of a series of eight rulers to grace the facade of the Palazzo Reale in Naples.

Gemito suffered some sort of mental collapse in 1887 and until 1909 remained a recluse, involved primarily with drawing. He returned to sculpture around 1910, and from that year until his death his inclinations took another eccentric twist-away from the realism of modern life and toward mythological subjects. He worked on a small scale, often enhancing his surfaces with precious metals. Imaginary portraits emerged in the 1920s, including one of Alexander the Great and a head of Medusa. Critical reception faltered in response to his later work, despite the outspoken admiration of the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio. Gemito died in Naples in 1929.

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat. 74.

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