From Thursday morning, the painting “Il Quarto Stato” (meaning, “The Fourth Estate”) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo is returning to its home, in the permanent collections on the first floor of Milan’s Modern Art Gallery, in Milan.
The work returns permanently to the GAM – Galleria d’Arte Moderna museum after being on display at the Museo del Novecento for more than a decade.
An emblematic work from an artistic, technical and social point of view, “Il Quarto Stato” is the masterpiece by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, his most famous work and a beloved Italian icon.
Set in a square in the painter’s hometown, Volpedo, in the Italian region Piedmont, the scene depicts the protest of a group of workers whose march towards a bright future emits the cohesive force and dignity of labour.
It is a monumental painting, that Pellizza created between 1898 and 1901, turbulent years of strikes, protests and demands of the working class. This painting required the artist a ten-year period of sketches and study. Three previous versions are known: “Ambassadors of Hunger” (1892), “Fiumana” (1895) and “The Workers’ Way” (1899), which is close to the final work, and which the painter, inspired by the writings of Jean Jaurès on the French Revolution, poetically titled “The Fourth Estate.”
Presented to the public for the very first time at the Quadriennale in Turin, in 1902, the painting remained unsold, but quickly became a celebrated and highly reproduced image.
In 1920, in the incandescent climate of the Red Biennium, a two-year period, between 1919 and 1920, of intense social conflict in Italy, “Il Quarto Stato” arrived in Milan for a monographic exhibition at the Pesaro gallery, on via Manzoni. The clamour it aroused was such that a public fundraising secured the work for the city, finding its first Milan home in the Balla room of the Castello Sforzesco and then moving on to the Gallery of Modern Art.
After the Second World War, the painting was transferred to Palazzo Marino, the City Hall, as a symbol of the conquest of democracy and the re-appropriation of rights in post-regime Italy. It is no coincidence that in 1979 the painting was chosen by the director Bernardo Bertolucci for the opening of his 1976 film “1900.”
After a decade-long interlude, during which Pelizza’s work was chosen as the isolated and lifeless first work in the collections of the Museo del Novecento, the monumental masterpiece is now returning to the Galleria d’Arte Moderna once again, as a sort of acknowledgement that moving it to the Museum of the 20th Century on Piazza Duomo, was a poor choice.
Considered from time to time a manifesto, an icon or a symbol, “Il Quarto Stato” is first and foremost a masterpiece of Italian painting. Historians and enthusiasts alike consider the painting as the pinnacle of an illustrious tradition, revolutionised by a modern style and technique.
The composition is rendered with small touches of colour, and lines of pure pigments, resulting in a dense pattern of filamentous brushstrokes.
This technique, theoretically advocated in Milan by Vittore Grubicy and developed from the penultimate decade of the 19th century, in parallel with French experiences, is based on the use of ‘divided colours.’ Painters in the Divisionist season, as the French Impressionists, didn’t mix the colours on the palette but spread them pure on the canvas, and the image appeared in the eye of the observer.
In this way, based on the laws of colour perception theorised by Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood, the brilliance and luminosity of each pigment were maintained, in fact, highlighted, multiplying the effects of the light that the artists could render on the canvas.
The painting’s newest position has been designed to view the work in the best possible way, both from a distance that renders its imposing formal setting, and at close range. At the Museo del Novecento, its former location, the painting was trapped in a glass box, meters far from the viewers. Now visitors can recognise, and enjoy, the revolutionary pictorial technique, and the extraordinary skills of the artist, from up-close.
Exhibited between the room dedicated to Giovanni Segantini and the one devoted to Gaetano Previati, “Il Quarto Stato” finally finds his chronologically appropriate position, which allows a dialogue with the surrounding works, in an itinerary that summarises, through a series of absolute masterpieces, the transition from the 19th to the 20th century.