Felice Casorati was the great protagonist of painting in Piedmont in the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in Novara in 1883 - where his father, a professional solder, was stationed at the time – into a family from Pavia that was well-known for its mathematicians, lawyers, and doctors. After stops at Milan, Reggio Emilia, and Sassari, during the family’s period in Padua the young Felice had a serious nervous breakdown and was forced to interrupt his studies as a pianist, which was intended to be his career, and he began to paint. Rather than interrupting his art, his graduation in law (1906) intensified it.
This period was to be crowned by his participation in the 1906 Venice Biennale with an elegant Ritratto di signora, which was favourably noted by the critics. In 1908 he and his family moved to Naples where he began an ambitious series of figure paintings in which there were conjoined an aristocratic antique patina, echoes of Breughel, and the style of Ignacio Zuloaga, an artist he deeply admired: all this was to be seen in the works he sent to the Venice Biennale in 1909 (Le figlie dell’attrice, Le vecchie) and in 1910 (Le ereditiere). The two solo shows held by Gustav Klimt in Venice in 1910, and in Rome in 1911, greatly influenced his production in the second decade. He made use of Secessionist styles, brilliant colouring, and elegantly decorative methods. His family moved to Verona in 1911, and this allowed him to become part of the young group of artists based around Ca’ Pesaro in Venice, and it was here that in 1913 he exhibited in a room devoted only to his work, and where he was to return in 1919.
Although he was a protagonist of a spiritualist avant-garde, with the brilliant colours typical of Symbolism and a strong graphic personality (testified to by his presence in the Rome Secession where, in 1915, he was again to have a room to himself), he did not break off his relationships with the more official Venice Biennale where, in 1912, he had a personal success with the sale of two paintings to the Ca’ Pesaro gallery and to the Belgian government.
After the war his activity was to be particularly significant in catalysing his youthful energies (shows in Verona in 1918; Turin 1919; exhibition of the Ca’ Pesaro dissident artists, 1920; the Turin Quadriennale show, 1923). But it was to be his painting above all that became fundamental for the “return to order” of Italian painting. His own return was at first characterised by a phase of reconstructing a space that was apparently rigorous but, in fact, was enigmatically metaphysical (L’attesa, 1918-19; Anna Maria De Lisi, 1919; Mattino, 1920; L’uomo delle botti, 1920).
Then, swept away by the Cézanne exhibition at the 1920 Venice Biennale, the artist tried to solidify his painting, in a fifteenth century and classicist way, in large compositions in which the figures were placed in his studio (Fanciulla con linoleum, 1921, Turin, private collection; Silvana Cenni, 1922, Turin, private collection; Lo studio, 1923, destroyed; Meriggio, 1923, Revoltella museum, Trieste; Conversazione platonica, 1925, Florence, private collection; Ragazze dormienti, 1927, Maranello, private collection); in still-lifes (Uova sul cassettone, 1920, Turin, private collection; Maschere, 1921, Alessandria, Pinacoteca Civica; La zucca, shown at the Venice Biennale in 1924); and in silent and solemnly pure portraits (Ritratto della sorella, 1922; portraits of members of the Gualino family, 1922-23; Ritratto di Hena Rigotti, 1924), all works seen at the most important exhibitions of the 1920s and which aroused a great debate in Italy about modernity.
In particular, his solo room at the 1924 Venice Biennale - with a catalogue presentation by Lionello Venturi and installed concurrently with the rooms exhibiting work by Ubaldo Oppi and the painters of the Italian Novecento movement - for the first time made the visitors face the problem of his intellectual return to antiquity and a decided break with links to nineteenth century painting.
In about 1920-30, he accepted invitations to the Venice Biennale and the first Quadriennale in Rome. Casorati’s painting, after a brief period of interest in landscape, decisively changed and saw a rejection of the chilly neo-Mantegna purity of the recent past in favour of a painting that, with its mainly tenuous and pearly hues, tended to open up and amalgamate (Susanna, 1929; La toeletta, Conversazione alla finestra, Tre sorelle, 1930) inspired by the contemporary work of the Sei Pittori group in Turin.
In the post-war period (in 1941 he had been nominated professor of painting at the Accademia Albertina in Turin) his activity continued for almost twenty years until his death, with mainly paintings of figures or still-lifes, all with a sharp spatial definition and a tendency to decoration that was not untouched by contemporary abstract painting. Lastly, it is well worth mentioning Casorati’s many other works outside painting: first of all that of an etcher, an activity which was particular intense during the second decade of the century; then there were sculptures,; mosaics, and, last but not least, his activity as a stage and costume designer at the Maggio Musicale, Florence (1933, 1935, 1950), the Scala opera house in Milan (1942, 1946-50), the Venice Festival (1947), the Eliseo in Rome (1950), and the Piccolo Teatro in Milan (1951).