Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli (October 14, 1824 – June 29, 1886) was a French painter of the generation preceding the Impressionists.
Monticelli was born in Marseille in humble circumstances. He attended the École Municipale de Dessin in Marseille from 1842 to 1846, and continued his artistic training in Paris, where he studied under Paul Delaroche at the École des Beaux-Arts. In Paris he made copies after the Old Masters in the Louvre, and admired the oil sketches of Eugène Delacroix. In 1855 he met Narcisse Diaz, a member of the Barbizon school, and the two often painted together in the Fontainebleau Forest. Monticelli frequently adopted Diaz's practice of introducing nudes or elegantly costumed figures into his landscapes.
He developed a highly individual Romantic style of painting, in which richly colored, dappled, textured and glazed surfaces produce a scintillating effect. He painted courtly subjects inspired by Antoine Watteau; he also painted still lifes, portraits, and Orientalist subjects that owe much to the example of Delacroix.
After 1870, Monticelli returned to Marseille, where he would live in poverty despite a prolific output, selling his paintings for small sums. An unworldly man, he dedicated himself singlemindedly to his art.
The young Paul Cézanne befriended Monticelli in the 1860s, and the influence of the older painter's work can be seen in Cézanne's work of that decade. Between 1878 and 1884 the two artists often painted landscapes together, once spending a month roaming the Aix countryside. Although Monticelli experimented briefly around 1870 with a treatment of light reflecting the discoveries of the Impressionists, he found the objectivity of this approach uncongenial.
Confronted with criticism of his style of painting Monticelli himself remarked, "I paint for thirty years from now". His work reached its greatest spontaneity in the decade before his death in 1886.
More than a century after his death, Monticelli's art is still subject to controversy.
In its painterly freedom Monticelli's work prefigures that of Vincent van Gogh, who greatly admired his work after seeing it in Paris when he arrived there in 1886. Van Gogh immediately adopted a brighter palette and a bolder attack, and later remarked, "I sometimes think I am really continuing that man." In 1890, Van Gogh and his brother Theo were instrumental in publishing the first book about Monticelli.
Monticelli's reputation grew after his death. Among his collectors was Oscar Wilde who, after going to prison in 1895, wrote of his bankruptcy in a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, "De Profundis": "That all my charming things were to be sold: my Burne-Jones drawings: my Whistler drawings: my Monticelli: my Simeon Solomons: my china: my Library..."
Others still consider Monticelli a minor figure in 19th-century painting, a painter's painter, and some express their disregard in a colourful manner. In a statement published in 2005 in The Guardian, Sir Timothy Clifford, director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, even chose Monticelli's A Garden Fete as the worst painting in Britain, and commented, "We have been bequested eight paintings by Monticelli, each one more hideous than the last. In my 21 years here, none has been hung because I think Monticelli produces screamingly awful art. I call this one a Fete Worse Than Death."
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