Mariano José María Bernardo Fortuny y Marsal (June 11, 1838 – November 21, 1874) was a Spanish painter. His brief career encompassed both the Romantic* fascination with Orientalist* themes, and a prescient loosening of brush-stroke and color.
He was born in Reus, a town near Tarragona in the autonomous community of Catalonia in Spain. His father died when Mariano was an infant, and his mother by the time he was 12. Thus, Mariano was raised by his grandfather, a cabinet-maker who taught him to make wax figurines. At the age of 9, at a public competition in his town a local patron, Domingo Soberno, encouraged further study. At the age of 14 years he moved to Barcelona with his grandfather. A sculptor, Domingo Taleru, secured Fortuny a pension to allow him to attend the Academy of Barcelona. There he studied for four years under Claudio Lorenzale, and in March 1857 he gained a scholarship that entitled him to two years of studies in Rome starting in 1858. There he studied drawing and Grand Manner* styles.
In 1859, he was called by the Spanish government to depict the campaigns of the Spanish-Moroccan War. The expedition lasted for only about six months, and he returned to Spain in the summer of 1860.
Since the days of Velázquez, there had been a tradition in Spain of memorializing battles and victories in paint; and on the basis of his experiences, Fortuny was commissioned by the city of Barcelona to paint a large canvas diorama of the capture of the camps of Muley-el-Abbas and Muley-el-Hamed by the Spanish army. He began his composition of The battle of Tetuan on a canvas fifteen metres long; but though he worked on and off on it during the next decade, he never finished it.
The greater influence of this travel on Fortuny was his subsequent fascination with the exotic themes of the world of Morocco, painting both individuals and imagined court scenes. He visited Paris in 1868 and shortly afterwards married Cecilia de Madrazo, the daughter of Federico de Madrazo, who would become curator of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Together, they had a son, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, who became a well-known fashion and tapestry designer. Another visit to Paris in 1870 was followed by a two years’ stay at Granada, but then he returned to Rome, where he died somewhat suddenly on November 21, 1874 from an attack of tertian ague, or malaria, contracted while painting in the open air at Naples and Portici in the summer of 1874.
Fortuny paintings are colorful, with a vivacious iridescent brushstroke, that at times recalls the softness of Rococo painting but also anticipates impressionist brushwork, Fortuny’s recollection of Morocco is not a costume ball, but a fierce, realistic portrait which includes bare-chested warriors. Richard Muther states:
“his marvellously sensitive eye … discerned the stalls of Moorish carpet-sellers, with little figures swarming, and the rich display of woven stuffs of the East; the weary attitude of old Arabs sitting in the sun; the sombre, brooding faces of strange snake-charmers and magicians. This is no Parisian East…every one here speaks Arabic”.
Fortuny often painted scenes where contemporary life had still not shaken off the epaulets and decorations of ancient traditions such as the ”Burial of a matador” and couples signing marriage contracts (La Vicaria). Each has the dazzle of bric-a-brac ornament, but as in his painting of the ”Judgement of the model”, that painterly decorative air of Rococo and Romanticism was fading into academicism and left to confront the naked reality of the represented object. He inherited Goya’s eye for the paradox of ceremony and reality.
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Biography from Museo del Prado
Watercolour was one of the most characteristic modes of artistic expression in the 19th century. Although it was already used by Spanish painters of earlier generations, it reached its high point in Spain with the work of Mariano Fortuny (1838-1874). Fortuny’s prominent position in the international art world of his day resulted in widespread imitation within Spain of all the aspects of this Catalan artist that had brought him fame, particularly his interest in technical experimentation.
While Fortuny used watercolour in the same way as many of his contemporaries, with the aim of capturing his impressions of landscapes and of deftly and rapidly conveying his ideas in an immediate manner, he is most noted for his richly pictorial works on paper in this technique, which reveal close parallels with his finest work on canvas. As a result, collectors and art dealers of the day considered Fortuny’s watercolours as important as his most exquisitely painted and highly prized paintings.