European studies blog

14 October 2013

Verdi and Wagner: two composers, two bicentenaries, four portraits

The bicentenaries of the births of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) are being magnificently commemorated in various countries, though not without the occasional controversy. Last December, La Scala’s  decision to open its season  not with a Verdi opera but with Wagner’s  Lohengrin  was seen  as ‘a blow for national pride in a moment of crisis’; this summer’s Proms were also widely criticised for programming seven Wagner operas (including a complete Ring Cycle) and none by Verdi, who was represented only by a concert of choral music and half a concert of tenor arias. It has to be said, though, that during this anniversary year the BBC is broadcasting the complete works of both composers and that Verdi is more in evidence this autumn in the weeks around the exact anniversary of his birth on 10 October. Finally, the inauguration of La Scala’s new season with La traviata will hopefully restore national pride (even though it will have a German Violetta)! 

The anniversary has also engendered innumerable discussions about the relative merits of these two towering figures, embodiments of the cultures of their respective nations. Verdi’s status as the symbol of the Risorgimento, has recently been  been questioned.  Even  more unexpected is the revelation that at times during the Third Reich Verdi’s operas were more performed in Germany than Wagner’s.

I would like commemorate this bicentenary year with a brief, and uncontroversial, look at portraits of the two composers in old age, painted in the 1880s and 1890s, Verdi  by Giovanni Boldini, and Wagner by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) was an immensely successful society portrait painter. He was one of the ‘Italians in Paris’ who worked in the orbit of Degas and his two portraits of Verdi were painted  in the spring of 1886, during the composer’s brief visit to Paris to hear the baritone Victor Maurel, who went on to create the roles of  Iago and Falstaff, in the composer’s last two operas. The first portrait was the larger, more official and sober oil painting which Verdi later presented to the Rest Home for Musicians, which he himself had founded.

Verdi Boldoni 2 (CM)
Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi seated.  1886. Milan, Oil on canvas. 

Boldini, who was dissatisfied with that first portrait, invited Verdi to a second sitting in which the pastel portrait in a top hat and  a scarf knotted at his neck, was finished in just  three hours.

Verdi Boldoni_PH
Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi in a Top Hat.  1886. Rome, Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna.  Pastel on board.

It is a more delicate, informal and lively work, and Boldini liked it so much that he kept it in his studio, refusing to sell it to eager buyers (including the Prince of Wales). He lent it, however, to various important exhibitions and its fame spread, especially after Verdi’s publisher Giulio Ricordi  commissioned an etching after it. In 1918 Boldini finally presented it to the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna in Rome. It is now one of the most reproduced portraits of Verdi.

Renoir’s portrait of Wagner (now in the Musée d’Orsay) was painted just one year before the composer’s death

Wagner Renoir 1 (CM)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir  Portrait of Richard Wagner. 15 January 1882 Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

The artist, whose circle of friends included numerous Wagner enthusiasts at a time of considerable anti-German feeling in France after the Franco-Prussian War, was in Naples when he received a commission from a French music lover, the magistrate Antoine Lascoux, to paint a portrait of the composer. After several misadventures on his journey to Palermo, amusingly recounted in a letter to a friend, he was finally received by Wagner, who was staying at the Grand Hotel et des Palmes.

The portrait was painted in just 35 minutes, on 15 January 1882, two days after Wagner had completed the orchestral score of Parsifal. The session, also documented in Cosima Wagner’s diary [British Library X:439/4604], was by all accounts a jovial occasion, though Renoir was very nervous and was shocked by Wagner’s comments about painting and his anti-Semitic remarks. Wagner was amused by Renoir’s nervousness and grimacing while painting, and commented that the portrait made him look like ‘a protestant pastor’ (in Renoir’s account) or ‘the embryo of an angel, an oyster swallowed by an epicure’ (in Cosima’s).

A copy of the 1882 portrait was commissioned by another French Wagner enthusiast, Paul-Alfred Chéramy. This version (now in the Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra National de Paris) is smaller and sketchier than the original.

Wagner Renoir 2 (CM)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir  Portrait of Richard Wagner. 1893. Paris, Musée del’Opéra.

Renoir visited Bayreuth in 1896 but was bored by the length of the operas. Moreover, he detested the new development of performances taking place in a darkened auditorium that deprived him the pleasure of observing the activities of other spectators.

This celebration of these two great composers will, however, have to end on a sad note – the recent death of Patrice Chéreau. Chéreau’s 1976 centenary production of the Ring cycle in Bayreuth is now,  like Giorgio Strehler’s  productions of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, the stuff of operatic legend.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek studies

Barbara Ehrlich White, Renoir, his life, art, and letters. (New York, 2010) LC.31.b.8596

Jean Renoir,  Renoir, my father  (London, 1962)  7852.s.52.

Boldini / a cura di Francesca Dini, Fernando Mazzocca, Carlo Sisi.  (Venice, 2005) YF.2006.b.182


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