Biography of Artist Giorgio Morandi

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Master of Still-Life Bottles

Famous artist Morandi paintings
Morandi's painting studio, with his easel and table where he would set out the objects for a still-life composition. On the left you can see is a door with a window, a source of natural light. (Click on photos to see larger version). Photo © Serena Mignani / Imago Orbis

The 20th century Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (see photo) is most famous for his still-life paintings, though he also painted landscapes and flowers. His style is characterized by painterly brushwork using muted, earthy colors, with an overall effect of serenity and otherworldliness to the objects depicted.

Giorgio Morandi was born on 20 July 1890 in Bologna, Italy, at Via delle Lame 57. After the death of his father, in 1910, he moved into an apartment at Via Fondazza 36 with his mother, Maria Maccaferri (died 1950), and his three sisters, Anna (1895-1989), Dina (1900-1977), and Maria Teresa (1906-1994). He would live in this building with them for the rest of his life, moving to a different apartment in 1933 and in 1935 getting the studio that has been preserved and is now part of the Morandi Museum.

Morandi died on 18 June 1964 in his flat at Via Fondazza. His last signed painting was dated February of that year.

Morandi also spent a lot of time in the mountain village of Grizzana, about 22 miles (35km) west of Bologna, eventually having a second home there. He first visited the village in 1913, loved to spend the summers there, and spent most of the last four years of his life there.

He earned a living as an art teacher, supporting his mother and sisters. In the 1920s his financial situation was a bit precarious, but in 1930 he got a steady teaching job at the art academy he'd attended.

Next: Morandi's art education...

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Morandi's Art Education & First Exhibition

Famous artist Morandi paintings
A close-up of part of the table shown in the previous photo, at some of the objects left in Morandi's studio after his death. Photo © Serena Mignani / Imago Orbis

Morandi spent a year working in his father’s business then, from 1906 to 1913, studied art at the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Art) in Bologna. He started teaching drawing in 1914; in 1930 he took a job teaching etching at the academy.

When he was younger he traveled to see art by both the old and modern masters. He went to Venice in 1909, 1910 and 1920 for the Biennale (an art show that is still prestigious today). In 1910 he went to Florence, where he particularly admired paintings and murals by Giotto and Masaccio. He also traveled to Rome, where he saw Monet’s paintings for the first time, and to Assisi to see the frescoes by Giotto.

Morandi owned a wide-ranging art library, from Old Masters to modern painters. When asked who had influenced his early development as an artist, Morandi cited Cézanne and the early Cubists, along with Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Uccello, and Giotto. Morandi first encountered the paintings of Cézanne in 1909 as black-and-white reproductions in a book Gl’impressionisti francesi published the year before, and in 1920 saw them in real life in Venice.

Like many other artists, Morandi was drafted into the army during the First World War, in 1915, but was medically discharged as unfit for service a month and a half later.

First Exhibition
In early 1914 Morandi attended a Futurist painting exhibition in Florence. In April/May of that year exhibited his own work in a Futurist Exhibition in Rome, and soon thereafter in the “Second Seccession Exhibition”1 which also included paintings by Cezanne and Matisse. In 1918 his paintings were included in an art journal Valori Plastici, along with Giorgio de Chirico. His paintings from this time are classified as metaphysical, but as with his Cubist paintings, it was only a stage in his development as an artist.

He had his first solo exhibition after the end of the Second World War, at a private commercial gallery in April 1945 at Il Fiore in Florence.

Next: Morandi's less-known landscapes...

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Morandi’s Landscapes

Famous artist Morandi paintings
Many of Morandi's landscape paintings feature the view from his studio. Photo © Serena Mignani / Imago Orbis

The studio Morandi used from 1935 had a view from the window that he was to paint often, until 1960 when construction obscured the view. He spent most of the last four years of his life at Grizzana, which is why there is a higher proportion of landscapes in his later paintings.

Morandi chose his studio for the quality of the light "rather than for its size or convenience; it was small--about nine square meters--and as visitors frequently noted, it could only be entered by passing through the bedroom of one of his sisters."2

Like his still-life paintings, Morandi's landscapes are pared-down views. Scenes reduced to essential elements and shapes, yet still particular to a location. He's exploring how far he can simplify without generalizing or inventing. Take a close look also at the shadows, how he selected which shadows to include for his overall composition, how he even used multiple light directions.

Next: Morandi's Artistic Style...

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Morandi’s Style

Famous artist Morandi paintings
Although the objects in Morandi's still life paintings may seem stylized, he painted from observation not imagination. Looking and rearranging reality can often trigger ideas that you may never have thought of otherwise. Photo © Serena Mignani / Imago Orbis
"For anyone who pays attention, the microcosm of Morandi's tabletop world becomes vast, the space between objects immense, pregnant, and expressive; the cool geometry and greyed tonalities of his outdoor world becomes intensely evocative of place, season, and even time of day. The austere gives way to the seductive." 3

Morandi had developed what we regard as characteristically his style by the time he was thirty, deliberately choosing to exploring limited themes. The variety in his work comes through his observation of his subject matter, not through his choice of subject matter. He used a limited palette of muted, earthy colors, echoing the frescoes by Giotto he so admired. Yet when you compare several of his paintings, you realise the variation he did use, the subtle shifts of hue and tone. He's like a composer working with a few notes to explore all the variations and possibilities.

With oil paints, he applied it in a painterly fashion with visible brushmarks. With watercolor, he worked wet-on-wet letting colors blend together in strong shapes.

"Morandi methodically limits his composition to golden and cream hues that delicately explore the weight and volume of his objects through varied tonal expression..." 4

His still-life compositions moved away from the traditional objective of showing a set of beautiful or intriguing objects into pared-down compositions where objects were grouped or bunched, shapes and shadows merging into one another (see example). He played with our perception of perspective through his use of tone.

In some still life paintings "Morandi gangs those objects together so that they touch, hiding and cropping one another in ways that alter even the most recognizable features; in others the same objects are treated as distinct individuals, fathered on the surface of the tabletop like an urban crowd in a piazza. In still others, objects are pressed and stagged like the buildings of a town on the fertile Emilian plains."5

It could be said the real subject of his paintings are the relationships -- between the individual objects and between a single object and the rest as a group. Lines can become shared edges of objects.

Next: Morandi's Still Life Placement of Objects...

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Placement of Objects

Famous artist Morandi paintings
Top: Brushmarks where Morandi tested a color. Bottom: Pencil marks recorded where individual bottles were to stand. Photo © Serena Mignani / Imago Orbis

On the table on which Morandi would arrange his still-life objects, he had a sheet of paper onto which he would mark where individual objects were placed. In the bottom photo you can see a close-up of this; it looks like a chaotic mixture of lines but if you do this you'll find you remember which line is for what.

On the wall behind his still-life table, Morandi had another sheet of paper on which he would test colors and tones (top photo). Checking a tiny bit of a mixed color away from your palette by dabbing your brush onto a bit of paper quickly helps you see the color anew, in isolation. Some artists do it directly onto the painting itself; I have a sheet of paper next to a canvas. Old Masters often tested colors at the edge of the canvas in areas which would ultimately be covered by the frame.

Next: All Morandi's Bottles...

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How Many Bottles?

Famous artist Morandi paintings
A corner of Morandi's studio shows how many bottles he collected! (Click on photo to see a larger version.). Photo © Serena Mignani / Imago Orbis

If you look at a lot of Morandi's paintings, you'll begin to recognize a cast of favorite characters. But as you can see in this photo, he collected loads! He chose everyday, mundane objects, not grand or valuable items. Some he painted matte to eliminate reflections, some transparent glass bottles he filled with colored pigments.

"No skylight, no vast expanses, an ordinary room in a middle class apartment lit by two ordinary windows. But the rest was extraordinary; on the floor, on shelves, on a table, everywhere, boxes, bottles, vases. All kinds of containers in all kinds of shapes. They cluttered any available space, except for two simple easels... They must have been there for a long time; on the surfaces... there was a thick layer of dust." -- art historian John Rewald on his visit to Morandi's studio in 1964. 6

Next: The Titles Morandi Gave His Paintings...

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Morandi's Titles for His Paintings

Famous artist Giorgio Morandi
Morandi's reputation is as an artist who led a quiet life, doing what he loved best -- painting. Photo © Serena Mignani / Imago Orbis

Morandi used the same titles for his paintings and drawings -- Still Life (Natura Morta), Landscape (Paesaggio), or Flowers (Fiori) -- together with the year of their creation. His etchings have longer, more descriptive titles, which were approved by him but originated with his art dealer.

The photos used to illustrate this biography were provided by Imago Orbis, which is producing a documentary called Giorgio Morandi's Dust, directed by Mario Chemello, in collaboration with Museo Morandi and Emilia-Romagna Film Commission. At the time of writing (November 2011), it was in post-production.

1. The First Independent Futurist Exhibition, from 13 April to 15 May 1914. Giorgio Morandi by EG Guse and FA Morat, Prestel, page 160.
2. "Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings, Interviews" by Karen Wilkin, page 21
3. Wilkin, page 9
4. Cézanne and Beyond Exhibition Catalog, edited by JJ Rishel and K Sachs, page 357.
5. Wilkin, page 106-7
6. John Rewald quoted in Tillim, "Morandi: a critical note" page 46, quoted in Wilkin, page 43
Sources: Books on the Artist Giorgio Morandi

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Boddy-Evans, Marion. "Biography of Artist Giorgio Morandi." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Marion. (2021, December 6). Biography of Artist Giorgio Morandi. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Marion. "Biography of Artist Giorgio Morandi." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).