Although perhaps not the most talented of the group, Signorini was certainly the inspiration and theoretician of the Macchiaioli. This movement has often been associated with Impressionism but was neither as far-reaching nor as technically specific as the French movement. It is connected more closely with the en plein air tendency and the painters of the Barbizon School, and with the Realism of Courbet.
Unlike most of the Macchiaioli, who were generally, like Fattori and Lega, of humble origin, Signorini came from a comfortably off, well-educated, liberal family. His father was a painter and in 1852 allowed his son to abandon his academic studies to devote himself to painting. He continued, nevertheless, to take a lively interest in literature. He studied first at the Accademia del Nudo, but before long he was spending most of his time with other Florentine artists at the Caffé Michelangelo discussing revolutionary politics and their equally revolutionary ideas about art. Most of them had taken part in the failed revolution of 1848. They admired the painting of Filippo Lippi, Carpaccio and the Italian Quattrocento, but also the realism and sincerity of Delacroix, Decamps and the Barbizon painters. Rejecting traditional ideas of composition, they sought to celebrate the daily life of the ordinary people, with whom they felt close links, and to observe and record nature and the Italian landscape as faithfully as possible. In their painting they attempted to penetrate the secrets of the changing light of the different seasons and times of day. Fattori, Lega, Sernesi, Abbati and Signorini all took part in the war against Austria in 1859, in which Sernesi lost his life. Signorini wrote of the Macchiaioli: 'After the revolution of 1848... considerable numbers of young people turned away from the constraints of academic teachings. Nature would be their only teacher, nature in all her nakedness, stripped of the scholarly vision.'
For several years, the discussions at the Caffé Michelangelo produced more words than works of art. Finally, in 1855, Vincenzo Cabianca painted a black pig against a white wall, a work that is generally seen as the first statement of the principle of the macchia (splash or spot of colour) that was then evolving in the group. It was not until after the war of 1859, however, that the most important works by these artists were painted. It was at the salon in Florence (as important in Italy as the Salon in Paris was for the French) in 1862 that a critic derisively described these artists as macchiaioli or 'daubers', thus giving the group its name. Signorini liked the name and was quick to adopt it for himself and his friends. The art critic Vittorio Imbriani has provided a useful definition of the aesthetic ideas behind the macchia. 'It is a portrait of the first distant impression of an object or scene; the first impression which impresses itself on the artist's eye, whether he sees the object or scene materially or whether he sees one or the other in a recollection in his imagination... a simple macchia, a patch of colour, is capable of provoking a sentiment or feeling in its own right, without determining any kind of object'.
Signorini was invited to teach at the academies of Naples and Florence, and in 1892 he was made an honorary member of the academy of Florence. In 1881, he made the first of several visits to Scotland, where his work was much appreciated.
Of all the Macchiaioli, the educated and well-travelled Severini was the one who best understood the contribution of foreign painters, particularly the French. In 1859, recording the war of that year in which he had fought, he painted one of his most powerful works, The Cemetery at Solferino. In it he explores the violent contrasts between dark and indeterminate forms and a stormy and dramatic sky. In 1860, he painted another of his best-known works, Sunny Day at La Spezia, sometimes compared to the Intimist works painted by Vuillard in 1900. Like most of the Macchiaioli, he frequently painted the small villages of the Tuscan countryside, usually representing them in the middle of the day when the sun was at its most oppressive. He also painted scenes from the everyday life of ordinary people, often with a social intent. These works are often clearly inspired by literature. He aroused violent controversy with his courageous painting of a scene in a Hospital for the Female Insane.
Perhaps as a result of the different influences he experienced during his many journeys abroad, Signorini was the first member of the group to depart from the strict rules of painting in macchie. With Lega and Borrani, he formed an autonomous offshoot of the Macchiaioli, the Pergentina School, which followed a more spontaneous and obviously poetic inspiration. In Paris, he had become friends with Manet, Zola and Degas, and the influence of the latter, in particular, is very evident in his varied and marked use of colour and his incisive line. Signorini was the most successful of the Macchiaioli in terms of public and official recognition.
Signorini made his debut in 1860, exhibiting in Turin, Milan, Florence, Venice, Livorno and Bologna as well as abroad, particularly in Paris (where he was awarded a bronze medal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle) and Vienna. In Italy, he was frequently a member of the jury at exhibitions. Since his death, his works have appeared in collective exhibitions including Dipinti di autori toscani dell'800 (Paintings by 19th-Century Tuscan Artists) held at Farsettiarte, Prato.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Florence (Gal. d'Arte Moderna): 17 paintings