Painting of the Week / Thomas Abbs

Painting of the Week: 25

Painting of the Week 25: Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo - Il Quarto Stato

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907), Il Quarto Stato, 1901, oil on canvas, 293 x 545cm, Museo del Novecento.

We thought we had hogged it for long enough, so this week we opened up our ‘Painting of the Week’ feature to our loyal Twitter followers. After a wealth of submissions – including cityscapes, abstractions, monochromes (sadly we received no finger paints) – we couldn’t resist @Son_of_Ray’s suggestion: Il Quarto Stato by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, which depicts a group of agricultural workers marching resolutely – and confrontationally (look how big it is!) – towards the viewer.

Pellizza, an Italian socialist, belonged to the Divisionist school of painting. Arguably the most significant art movement to emerge from Italy at the end of the 19th century, and inspired by French pointillism, the Divisionists’ desire was to increase the luminosity and impact of their paintings by developing a way of painting with dots and strokes. For Pellizza, and other socialist artists like Leo Nomellini and Giacomo Balla, their radical style was matched by their radical subject matter.

When working on The Living Torrent (1895-6), (a pre-cursor to Il Quarto Stato), Pellizza wrote: ‘I am attempting a social painting … a crowd of people, workers of the soil, who are intelligent, strong, robust, united, advance like a torrent, overwhelming every obstacle in its path, thirsty for justice.’

To place Pellizza’s work within an historical context, in 1871 almost 60 per cent of Italy’s population worked on the land. The wars of unification and the post-1860 repression of the south had left huge public debt. Principally paid for by heavy taxation on agriculture, this debt punished and alienated the disenfranchised, impoverished peasantry. Further pressure from free trade and the loss of previous price protections, high taxation, unemployment, falling living standards and starvation, combined with agricultural recession, increasingly affordable trans-Atlantic fares and the potential for relatively well-paid work in South and North America, led to mass emigration. Between 1900 and 1915 over eight million Italians left for America, half of whom came from the agricultural south. What investment there was tended to benefit northern agriculture and industry, thereby exacerbating class and regional inequality. [1]

Some may view Pellizza’s work as being over-didactic, but in this context it seems churlish to reject such a stylish – and rousing – political call to arms.

Iconic in Italy and representative of the Socialist cause in the late 19th and early 20th century, the painting was used by Bernardo Bertolucci in the opening credits of his epic film, 1900. Also, and I promise this is a beautiful coincidence – like the fact broccoli is both healthy and delicious – we chose Il Quarto Stato to be the front cover of Donald Sassoon’s classic book, One Hundred Years of Socialism. ■ TA

[1] Simon Martin, Sport Italia, I.B.Tauris, 2011, pp11-13.

If you have a painting you would like us to feature, don’t hesitate and tweet us @ibtauris.


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2 thoughts on “Painting of the Week: 25

  1. My wife & I traveled from Sydney to Milan solely to see this breathtaking painting, a suitably framed print has ‘pride of place’ in our home. Many thanks for your information. My wife argues with me that the central woman with the infant is pleading with the leader not to strike-I disagree. What would be your opinion? We would greatly appreciate any further information about the painting & artist.

    • I just came back from Milan, and also was happy to see this painting again at the Museo del Novecento, after about 10 years since I’d seen it in a special exhibition in the UK. When I saw it the first time, and until today, I agree with your wife’s opinion. I’m eager to hear something different from my interpretation.

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