'The punishment of lust', Giovanni Segantini, 1891
Artist: Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 99 x 172.8cm
Accession Number: WAG 2127
'The punishment of lust' belongs to a series of paintings produced between 1891-96 on the theme of bad mothers (cattive madri). Segantini was inspired by Nirvana, a poem written by the 12th century monk Luigi Illica in imitation of the Indian text Panghiavahli. Illica's poem contained the phrase 'la Mala Madre' (the bad or wicked mother with an echo similar to 'la mala femmina' or prostitute) to describe those women who refused the responsibilities of motherhood.
The souls of the women are depicted floating against a snowy background based on the Swiss Alps where Segantini spent much of his life. The grandeur and spirituality of the Alps was a constant inspiration to Segantini whose last words before he died were: "I want to see my mountains".
In the painting the spirits of the women are punished for having committed the sin of abortion consciously or by neglect. Segantini had lost his mother when he was seven years old and was probably passionate to represent the trauma of the mother for the loss of her child. Segantini believed that a woman's role in life was motherhood and that a woman who objects to this was mean, bad or selfish. His beliefs drew from both religious and metaphysical ideas: the sanctity and motherhood of the Virgin Mary combined with the fertility of nature.
Segantini came from a country shaped by Catholicism. Although in his private life he never conformed to catholic doctrine, for example he refused to marry his partner and mother of his four children, his work was strongly influenced by religious ideas. What may have attracted Segantini to religion may have been the hope for a life after death.
Despite the tragic and somewhat misogynistic theme of the painting, the overall effect achieved by the thread-like brushstrokes is very atmospheric and dreamy. The mysterious atmosphere set by the painting is in line with the painter's metaphysical views about the connection between human and natural life.
'The Punishment of Lust' was bought by the gallery from the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1893, but the title of the painting was thought to be provocative and it was thus changed from 'The punishment of lust' to 'The punishment of luxury'.
'The Punishment of Lust' was the Walker Art Gallery's Picture of the Month in March 2000. A detailed online study of 'The Punishment of Lust' is available here.