About the artwork
'L’Italienne' has much in common with Derain’s figurative portraits made before the war. Like 'The Two Sisters' from 1914 it has an air of melancholy, the model appears detached and contemplative. The models in both pictures are placed in muted nondescript backgrounds that give these pictures an otherworldly quality.
Derain has used very thin paint in loose, expressive brushstrokes like in his pictures leading up to the war, and the flatness is a little indebted to the surfaces of early fresco painting. These pictures that Derain was working on before he was mobilized were mainly portraits and head studies and he was desperate to get back to them once the war was over. In a letter to Vlaminck from the front he said ‘I want to do nothing but portraits, real portraits with hands and hair; that’s real life!’
Derain visited Rome in 1921 where he studied Raphael and sketched the local countryside in the manner of the 19th century French painter Camille Corot. 'L’Italienne' was probably not painted on this trip to Italy but afterwards as according to his wife Derain did not use models while he was there. He most likely painted it from an Italian model in his studio at Rue Bonaparte in Paris.
At that time in Paris Italian models were common, and often wore traditional national dress, and they can be seen in other artists’ portraits at this time, such as those by Picasso. Derain has used this particular model in at least three other portraits where she is wearing a similar costume of a black dress, embroidered lawn fichu and grey apron.
He chose his models carefully according to his intentions. The model in 'L’Italienne' has a much calmer, softer face than the angular contours in his portraits made before the war such as 'The Two Sisters', when he was more influenced by the formal qualities of Cézanne and Cubism.
In 1916 Derain’s friend the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire encapsulated the qualities that came to be admired in Derain’s art writing, ‘André Derain is such a perfectly detached artist.’ While remaining in the artistic community, Derain was able to detach himself from overbearing artistic trends, but at the same time remained objective towards his subject matter, something that is clear in 'L’Italienne'.
His sympathetic reinvention of aspects of historical painting and antique sculpture gives 'L’Italienne' its air of monumentality. The model’s manner, pose and idealised face evoke Raphael’s portraits where he also often employed a sparse background. By placing her immobile in a seemingly timeless place Derain increases her sense of presence and permanence. Thus the picture would not look out of place alongside works by celebrated portraitists, while still retaining some modernity in the technique.
Derain greatly admired the late work of Corot, an artist who was also influenced by the Renaissance masters. Corot’s blend of the traditional and the modern appealed to Derain, not only in his style of painting, but also the choice of subject, from still life and the Roman countryside to Italian peasants.
Corot’s 'Woman with the pearl' 1868-70 is very close to 'L’Italienne' in its mood, arrangement, and even her slightly slumped pose. This picture was in the Louvre by 1912 so it is very possible that Derain took inspiration from it. There was also a general resurgence of interest in Corot’s pictures after the war and Derain bought his first picture by Corot in 1923.
Derain was very popular as he was seen to be continuing the French artistic tradition and was celebrated as such with many requests from dealers.
When Derain painted 'L’Italienne', he was nearing the height of his career. By 1931 seven books had been written on his work. However after the Second World War when other artists were progressing towards abstraction and other innovations, Derain’s controlled classicism lost favour, and he is still best remembered for his early Fauvist work.
André Derain’s father wanted him to become an engineer, but while he was at engineering college he enrolled himself in painting classes at the Académie Camillo where he first met Henri Matisse. In 1900 on a train Derain struck up a friendship with Maurice de Vlaminck and the pair shared a studio together for a year. In meeting these two artists Derain had placed himself at the centre of future developments in art.
He visited the Louvre and like many students made studies from the old master paintings there, something that he came back to later in his career. After three years of military service Derain met up again with Matisse and his paintings and woodcarvings show their admiration for Cézanne and Gauguin.
When the pictures that they painted together in the south of France were exhibited at the Paris Salon d’Automnein 1905, their pattern of divisionist brushstrokes in intense colours was so highly criticised that the artists were nicknamed the Fauves (wild beasts).
Influence of Cubism
The influence of Matisse’s circle on Derain was short, and a friendship with Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso brought new concerns. They found inspiration in the rendering of form and volume in African sculpture.
Derain was not really a Cubist, but he introduced a more sober colour palette and a geometric approach to some of his pictures. As well as being inspired by his contemporaries he renewed his interest in the old masters. This was controversial amongst his Cubist contemporaries as it led him away from their radicalism.
Despite this Derain’s work was widely exhibited by the start of the First World War where he fought 1914 to 1918. The more subdued, introspective qualities of his work in the years before the war preceded the feeling of other artists who called for a ‘return to order’ following the war after the vigour of innovations at the start of the century.