After his training at the Brera Academy in Milan, the young artist and his partner, Bice, were drawn to the mountains of Grissons, Switzerland, where they initially settled in Savognin. Already in his Brianza years, Segantini’s principal theme was the symbiotic relationship of human beings and animals, and farmers at their daily tasks (Hay Harvest, 1889-98; Sheep Shearing, 1886-88; Returning from the Forest, 1890). The stall or barn was a place of comfort that promised protection as night fell, and the wood and straw kept there ensured warmth. Only in the early painting The Pumpkin Harvest, 1884-86, did industrialization in the shape of the railroad interrupt, for the first and only time, Segantini’s idealized depiction of country idylls. His art reflects an affiliation with painters such as Millet and Courbet, but also with Liebermann.
Returning from the Forest, 1890
In the last evening light a farmwoman, bent over from exertion, returns with a load of wood to the village at the foot of the mountains, where the first lights are already lit. Here, homecoming is a symbol of the loneliness and allegory of death. Segantini’s imagery is programatically determined by the cycle of the seasons and human life.
Sheep Shearing, 1886-88
Sheep are being shorn in the semi-darkness of the stall in the foreground, and the rest of the herd is visible on the light-flooded meadow outside. The composition is determined by the stark contrast between light and dark, and the horizontal arrangement is reduced to essentials.
Rest in the Shade, 1892
A farm girl rests stretched out on the grass above a farmstead, her implements beside her. Is she asleep or only resting? Is she exhaused from the hard work on the farm? The painting evokes the harsh physical labor of farm life without actually showing the girl at work.
Hay Harvest, 1889-98
In front of rugged, soaring mountains a woman is raking hay. She has a firm grip on her traditional work implement and a white bonnet shades her eyes from the bright Alpine sunlight. Visible in the foreground are a few stones gleaned from the field – a reference to the great effort needed to farm in the Alps.
Pumpkin Harvest, 1884-86
This canvas is among the early works Segantini executed on the plains of Brianza, Italy. Directly adjacent to the field where pumpkins are being harvested a train runs by, engulfing the workers in white clouds of steam. Pumpkin Harvest is the only picture of Segantini’s that is clearly critical of industrialization.
Ave Maria on the Lake, 1886, is one of Segantini’s most famous paintings. After a first version of 1882, it marks both the conclusion of the Brianza years and the beginning of the painting-in-light, influenced by the Divisionist style, which he would continue to develop for the rest of his career. The artist dissolved matter into light and color, lending reality a metaphyisical radiance. The higher he climbed in the mountains, the more brilliant Segantini’s depictions and the more individual his handling of color, form and motif became. This is reflected in one of his last works, the unfinished Mountain Landscape, 1898-99. Here the mystical aspect of the mountains entered directly into the composition. Fine brushstrokes in pure colors condensed into a veritable coloristic explosion, an approach that took the artist to ever-higher levels of expressiveness.
Ave Maria on the Lake (at the Crossing), 1886
At the borderline between horizon and sky, the sunset shimmers, framed by the bent staves of the boat, overarched by the expanse of luminous evening sky, and reflected in the glittering surface of the water. Here, not only the sky but the entire world seems to consist of an infinite number of light particles.
Return to the Stall, 1888
The employment of Divisionism is clearly evident in this painting. The ground on the path to the stall, trampled by farmers and their animals, is rendered in bright, juxtaposed strokes of browns, greens and yellows. The light from the open door offers a safe path through the evening twilight.
Mountain Landscape, 1889-99
Visible here is the ground in terra rossa, a color Segantini always used. He then applied clear strokes in white and light blue to evoke the snow and reflected light of the high Alps. This contrast with the underlying red was a fundamental feature of his Divisionist style.
In the high Alps, Segantini found more light, more clarity, more air. For him and his painting the mountain world was a mystical place whose impact conveyed itself directly to his art.
Segantini’s initial landscape environment was the plains, followed by valleys and lakes, before he settled on the high plateaus – a realm of yet unsullied nature which he depicted as embodying a universal harmony. With him, nature was always divine, never life-threatening. It was not until the late, unfinished Mountain Landscape that Segantini approached the summits, losing himself in a suggestion of monochromy and abstraction. The mountain as last refuge – a myth of humanity ever since the Flood and the rescue of all life. The reduction of the motif to a few objects and concentration on a few color gradations in his late works brought Segantini to the point where painting dissolves into pure color and light, on the verge of invisible energy.
Midday in the Alps, 1891
This picture is quintessential Segantini, in that it combines all the fundamental ingredients of his art. The midday sun burns down on the treeline, a slight breeze is blowing. Baba, the artist’s housekeeper and model, holds her straw hat with one hand to shade her eyes. She gazes out across the countryside, into the distance, to a different horizon – perhaps the future? The sheep graze with their backs turned, everything is focused on her gaze, serves an allegorical heightening. Segantini might be described as a symbolist of realism. And in this composition he achieves the perfect pictorial structure, the entire surface as if interwoven with Divisionist strokes. The artist dissolves matter into light and color, evoking a virtually extraterrestrial radiance.
Cows at the Trough, 1888
A refreshment at the trough for men and animals – water as the source of life, not only dripping from the cow’s mouth but in the form of snowmelt on the high plateau and on the snow-covered peaks in the background. Nestled at the foot of the mountains on the edge of the plateau is a village, Savognin, its church steeple clearly projecting above the house roofs.
Spring in the Alps, 1897
From a high cultivated plateau a broad Alpine panorama, snow-covered and luminous, extends beneath an expanse of sky. Only few thin clouds scud through the brilliant blue, a color echoed in the shadows of the mountains on the snow.
Study for Life, or Becoming, 1897
As we can see from this large-format drawing, Segantini employed Divisionism not only in his paintings. Complex cross-hatching establishes a clear contrast between rocks and sky, and only the peaks of Bergell glow with the first rays of the morning sun. In a painterly way, Segantini already succeeds in evoking the dawn of a new day in this preliminary drawing to his Alpine Triptych.