Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Frederick Smallfield - Pieruccio the Florentine Prophet

Watercolour on paper
Signed and dated 1862

10.00 inches wide 13.78 inches high

Pieruccio is a little known figure mentioned in Storia Fiorentina, a history of Florence between 1527 and 1538 written for Cosimo de Medici in 1547. Italian Editions appeared in 1848-1849 and 1857-1858, but the book has never been translated into English. The recent Italian reprint or possibly a passage quoted in a review was probably the immediate inspirations for Smallfield's watercolour. The subject is an unusual, one but should be seen in the context of mid-Victorian interest in religious controversy and Florentine history, an interest, which also resulted in George Elliot's novel Romola.(1)

Critical response to Smallfield's exhibits of 1862 was dominated by his `Saint Francis Preaching among the Birds', but `Pieruccio' was mentioned both by the Art Journal and the Illustrated London News. The latter described the figure `declaiming skull in hand.' The Art Journal saw Smallfield as a member of the `Young England school,' (a hostile critical term for Pre-Raphaelitism) probably because of his interest in Italian subjects and also because of his unconventional use of watercolour. Figure painting in watercolour was uncommon, and serious historical painting in watercolour very rare. The contemporary watercolour painter closest to Smallfield in subject matter and treatment was Frederick W. Burton, a very close associate of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1860's, who resigned from the Old Water colour Society in 1870 in sympathy with Burne-Jones. The half-length format and stippled modelling of `Pieruccio' is very similar to the work developed by Burton in this period, but Smallfield has chosen a subject of uncharacteristic drama and intensity. Watercolours of biblical subjects by Ford Madox Brown and William Bell Scott are also relevant to understanding this work, although, unlike Smallfield, these artists do not treat single figures.

(1) For Lord Leighton's preliminary drawings for his illustrations to Romola see this catalogue (numbers 99- 100, plate 72)

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