Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), an Italian sculptor, broke with the prevalent classic and romantic attitudes of 19th-century sculpture and in doing so became one of the first truly modern sculptors. Rosso's work is viewed as being Impressionist, as well as being related to a lesser extent to Realism, Symbolism, and Expressionism.
Rosso was born in Turin, Italy, in 1858, the youngest of three children of a middle-class family. His attachment to his mother seems to have had a profound effect that later appeared in the tender, poetic way that he treated his favored themes—women, motherhood, and children. In 1870 the family moved to Milan, where Rosso spent much of his time in the workshop of a stonecutter. Because he had already decided to become an artist, this experience may have later influenced his having become a sculptor. The three year period of his enlistment in the army, 1879 to 1882, was unpleasant as Rosso was temperamentally unable to adapt to the necessary discipline.
Upon being discharged from the army Rosso immediately enrolled in anatomy and sculpture courses at Milan's Brera Academy. His earliest works, such as the Hooligan and the Unemployed Singer, both small bronzes of 1882, use his characteristic themes of that period, lower and lower-middle class life of the street. It may have been the example of Giuseppe Grandi (1843-1894), a Milanese sculptor noted for his small figures inspired by everyday life, which drew him in this thematic direction, as well as his own despondency and the impoverished conditions in which he lived.
Development of a Personal Style
In examples such as Kiss Under the Streetlamp (1882), Rosso captured what could be described as a snapshot effect. His figures were caught in telling but natural and unselfconscious poses, like random glimpses of life that are probably the most revealing. Under the streetlamp a young man with impetuous tenderness has stolen a kiss from his female companion. What Rosso captured was the emotion and gesture of the kiss without the details of the scene. It was an event momentarily viewed from a distance. In the recollection of this instant the artist remembered only what was to him most significant. This recollected vision characterized his sculpture thereafter. Rosso's technique was one of sketchiness and brevity. Only the lamppost and the kissing gesture are recorded. There is an awareness of the modeling of the clay (from which a mold was made and the bronze in turn cast) and a feel for the medium. Its manipulation is apparent in the varied, textured surfaces. This is related to Impressionist painting in its consciousness of the medium and the technique—paint, canvas, and individual brush strokes that have a meaning and visually pleasing effect aside from any representational quality.
In 1883 a disagreement and scuffle with a fellow student brought about his expulsion from the academy. The exhibition of four sculptures at the Exposizione di Belle Arti in Rome less than a month later must have given Rosso encouragement. Indicative of this was his productiveness and the emergence of a personal style.
The Flesh of Others (wax over plaster, 1883) is an early instance of Rosso's unprecedented use of these materials. He normally worked initially in clay without the benefit of preparatory sketches. The clay was used as a model for a copy in plaster. From this a mold was made with duplicates being produced in bronze or plaster. Possibly when coating his plaster with wax in preparation for making the mold, Rosso was fascinated by the intermediary effects. He had created an image with subtle transitions of value as light reflects off its surfaces. There is a fluidity as forms lose distinctness and flow together. Instead of the solidity and opacity of traditional sculptural materials—stone, wood, and clay—Rosso created a translucent white surface that variedly reflected the light around it.
The "unfinished" quality of his bronze and wax over plaster figures can be thought of as following the esthetic of a sketch-like effect in which the figure is caught in the process of evolution. This is related to the "non finito" of many of Michelangelo's sculptures. One has the awareness of an image coalescing out of Rosso's manipulatable, translucent wax. Euge‧ne Carrie‧re's (1849-1906) monochromatic brown paintings, in which his figures emerge out of a dense atmospheric fog as if they are visions produced in a trance, come to mind. This striving for the essence of a spiritual or emotional reality would ally Rosso to the Symbolist movement emerging in the mid-1880s. In cases where more than one duplicate was made, in each wax-over-plaster he varied the details by allowing the working of the wax to direct the creative process rather than simply replicating earlier versions of the same sculpture.
Mixed Recognition in Paris
In 1884 Rosso went to Paris and worked in the studio of the sculptor Jules Dalou, where he met Rodin, whom Rosso would come to view as his major competitor for fame. The death of his beloved mother forced his return to Milan before the end of the year.
This next period in Milan proved to be personally and artistically beneficial. In 1885 he married Giuditta Pozzi, who by the end of that year bore him a son, Francesco. From 1886 to 1889 he received several commissions and had sculptures shown at both the official and "independents salons" in Paris. He also participated in a major show in Venice in 1887. In 1889 he returned to Paris for the honor of exhibiting his sculptures in the Universal Exhibition, but certainly also with the intention of staying there to secure his place in the art world. Emile Zola's purchase of his Concierge (1883) must have given hope to the near-penniless Rosso.
His Sick Boy (1893)—which was done in both waxoverplaster and bronze versions—with its indistinct or veiled features captures the mood of the Symbolist poetic trance found in his earlier work. Paris broadened his subject matter, as is evident in his Conversation in the Garden (1893, wax-over-plaster). This work consists of three forms which share a common base. Two of these forms appear to be seated, behatted ladies who have been talking; the third, upright, form presumably represents Rosso addressing one of the two ladies. What is obviously globs of wax equally appears to be three figures. There is a charge of mental communication between the standing figure and the central form. Like most of his sculptures this is small—only 17 inches high. It has been observed in this instance and others that if a work is viewed from an elevated position with the light coming from above the mood and effect of the sculpture is much clearer. That Rosso often conceived his pieces to be viewed from a particular position and with specific lighting is also apparent in the duplication of this effect in photographs of his sculptures which he took himself or directed.
The importance given to visual perception as a factor of conception had appeared earlier, as in Rosso's Impression in an Omnibus (1883-1884). This consists of five seated, closely spaced figures whose clothing merges while their heads are silhouetted by what would be the light from the windows behind them. The two end figures are much less distinctly executed and suggest that he may have been thinking of a softening of focus in peripheral vision. While the theme recalls the realism of Honoré Daumier (1810-1879), the effect of a recollected glimpse is distinctly Rosso.
Starting in 1898 his productivity diminished to the point that Rosso rarely produced new works; he merely created copies and variations on older pieces. Conversely, it was in this period that he exhibited most extensively. In 1896 he was included in a Pre-Raphaelite show in London. An exhibition of his sculptures travelled through Germany in 1901, and in 1903 he showed at the Vienna Secession. In the same year he visited Leipzig, Berlin, and Brussels and returned to Paris, where he was one of the founding members of the Salon d'Automne, which had a one-man show of his work in 1904. Thereafter there were frequent exhibitions of his work in salons and galleries, particularly in Italy, where he was in effect discovered at last by his countrymen.
Madame X (wax-over-plaster), variously dated 1896 or 1913, is likely a sketch of 1896 which Rosso finished by coating and working wax over the earlier plaster. It is certainly his most simple piece, being only a ghost-image of a face. Periodically his creativity was resurrected, as in Ecce Puer (1906-1907, wax), the head of a child viewed as if with a softened focus. It is not so much the image of a pure, innocent child as it is the purity and innocence of a child that he captured. The controversy over Rodin's debt to him in regard to the Balzac, shown in 1898, and Rosso's general stylistic influence on his friend's work created such a bitterness over what Rosso felt was the lack of recognition of his genius that it seemingly inhibited further development.
A Growing Reputation
The poetic tone and Symbolist mood of his sculpture broke with the purely representational standards of the past. Ironically, by the time of his greatest fame during his life-time—the first quarter of the 20th century—Rosso's work was no longer revolutionary, though the Italian Futurists praised his sculptures and drew upon his artistic experience. During his lifetime and after his death the significance of Rosso's sculpture and his place in the history of art was subject to debate. His work was always associated with that of the prolific French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), whose reputation greatly exceeded that of Rosso and negatively affected the perception of Rosso's importance. Despite his having shown frequently and the support of critics and patrons, militating against Rosso's renown are his modest production as well as his having lived and worked so much of his career away from Paris, where Rodin was well established. Furthermore, Rosso had a volatile, bitter, and sometimes outrageous personality in contrast to Rodin's congeniality. A reappraisal of Rosso's work occurred after the 1960s, and his important contribution to the development of 20th-century sculpture has finally been acknowledged.
Rosso's uniqueness and importance in the history of sculpture is established by his having approached his medium as a way of seeing, feeling, and creating images that reject what to that point had been the concept of sculpture as solid and static. As Rosso said: "It is all a question of light. There is no matter in space."
Further Reading on Medardo Rosso
Most of the writings on Rosso are in Italian. The best source to present him in relation to 20th-century sculpture is C. Giedioa-Welcker, Contemporary Sculpture: An Evolution in Volume and Space (1955, rev. ed. 1961). The most thorough study on Rosso is M. Scolari Barr's Medardo Rosso (1963).