Medardo Rosso

Laughing Woman (Large Version)

c.1891, cast 1950s

Not on display

Medardo Rosso 1858–1928
Original title
Grande Rieuse
Wax and plaster
Object: 545 × 510 × 192 mm, 7 kg
support: 20 × 520 × 230 mm, 3 kg
Purchased 1986

Display caption

Rosso moved from Milan to Paris in 1889 and made the first example of this sculpture around 1891. It was modelled from a cabaret singer, and demonstrates his concern with everyday subjects. He made three further versions of the sculpture, each in several examples and different media. This work, which consists of a thin layer of wax over a plaster support, is a posthumous cast, probably made in the 1950s. Rosso aimed to incorporate elements of the atmosphere surrounding his subjects, even asserting that 'a work of art that is not concerned with light has no right to exist'. Contemporary critics described his works as 'impressionist' because of their evocation of the fleeting sensations of visual experience.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04846 Laughing Woman (Large Version) c.1891, cast 1950s

Grande rieuse
Beeswax on plaster 545 × 510 × 192 (21 1/2 × 20 1/8 × 7 1/2)
Inscribed by the artist's granddaughter ‘Danila Rosso Parravicini’ on plaster mould, and ‘Opera Medardo Rosso’ and ‘Danila Rosso Parravicini’ on base of plaster mould
Purchased from Lord's Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986
Prov: Danila Rosso Parravicini, granddaughter of the artist, by whom sold to Philip Granville (Lord's Gallery) Aug. 1965
Exh: Pioneers of Modern Sculpture, Hayward Gallery, July–Sept. 1973 (182, repr. p.72, as ‘Large Laughing Figure (Grande Rieuse)’, dated 1891)
Lit: Mino Borghi, Medardo Rosso, Milan 1950, p.66; Margaret Scolari Barr, Medardo Rosso, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York 1963, pp.34–6; Luciano Caramel, Mostra di Medardo Rosso (1858–1928), exh. cat., Palazzo della Permanente, Milan 1979, p.136; Luciano Caramel, ‘The Open Case of Medardo Rosso’, in Medardo Rosso: Impressions in Wax and Bronze 1882–1906, exh. cat., Kent Fine Art, New York 1988, pp.6, 15, 17, 109; Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1986–7, 1987, p.14, repr.; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.63, repr. in col.; Marco Fagioli, Medardo Rosso: Catalogo delle sculture, Florence 1993, pp.28, 88; Luciano Caramel, ‘The Sculptural Revolution of Medardo Rosso’, in Medardo Rosso, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1994, p.37

‘Laughing Woman (Large Version)’ is a life-sized bust of a mature woman, shown in the act of smiling or laughing. The sculpture, which is hollow and open at the back, is made of yellow beeswax on a plaster support, which is approximately one centimetre thick and has been coated in brown shellac. Underneath the front edge of the support are the pencil inscriptions, ‘Opera Medardo Rosso’ and, in the same hand, ‘Danila Rosso Parravicini’ (the signature of the artist's granddaughter). The latter signature is also found on the inside of the sculpture on an area of fresh white plaster which is believed to have been added when a metal clip was fixed to the bottom of the cast.

When purchased by the Tate Gallery, T04846 was thought to date from the 1890s. This impression was supported by the bill of sale, signed by the artist's granddaughter, Danila Rosso Parravicini, on 17 August 1965, which stated that this and other works sold to the London dealer Philip Granville were ‘authentic’ Rossos, and had been signed by her. However, it is now accepted that T04846 is a relatively recent cast. An Italian expert on Rosso's work, Luciano Caramel, who examined T04846 at the Tate Gallery on 31 March 1989, said that the sculpture was cast in the 1950s. In a letter dated 27 September 1990, he wrote that the sculpture ‘shows a lessening of depth in the incised and modelled details, and this loss of definition proves that the wax sculpture was derived from another wax, not the original model’. ‘The character of the wax material leads me to believe’, he went on, ‘that the execution of the replica should be dated to the 1950s’. Derek Pullen, head of the Tate Gallery's Sculpture Conservation Department, agrees that the yellow colour and good condition of the wax indicate that T04846 is a posthumous cast. Rosso waxes of the 1890s and 1900s are darker in colour, often amber-brown, and tend to have a ‘crumbly’ texture.

A certain amount of uncertainty surrounds the work's casting history. Rosso's son, Francesco Rosso, is known to have authorised the making of copies of several of Rosso's sculptures, and it is the view of Luciano Caramel that T04846 was made under his auspices. Francesco Rosso made copies directly for sale, and it is therefore unlikely that T04846 was made much before his death in 1956. In this connection it is significant that the family-run Museo Rosso owns a wax example of ‘Laughing Woman (Large Version)’, which appears identical to T04846 (repr. Mostra di Medardo Rosso (1858–1928), exh. cat., Palazzo della Permanente, Milan 1979, pl.37; measurements given as 55 × 51 × 15 cm). It, too, is bright yellow in colour and in good condition, and, like T04846, has an area of fresh white plaster on the inside of the plaster support. In addition, the museum owns a wax version of ‘Impression of a Boulevard. Woman with Veil’, which is made of a similar colour wax, and may be assumed to have been made at the same time. The Museo Rosso also owns a plaster version of ‘Laughing Woman (Large Version)’ (no reproduction known) of the same type as T04846. Its relatively fragile condition indicates that it is old, and Derek Pullen believes that it dates back to the artist's lifetime. It is not possible to say, however, whether it was a particularly early cast. Rosso would have made the original sculpture in clay, which would have been destroyed almost certainly in the casting process. It is likely that more than one plaster was made from the first mould, and these plasters may have been used to make other moulds and plasters. It is conceivable that the plaster at the Museo Rosso was made from the much restored plaster now in the collection of the Hakone Open Air Museum, Ninotaira, Japan (repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat., 1994, p.37 in col.), which was sold by Rosso to a private collector in the late 1920s. The plaster at the Museo Rosso, however, shows clear traces of mould lines, which, together with its protective coating of shellac, prove that at some point it was used to make other casts. On inspecting T04846 for a second time, Luciano Caramel said on 25 April 1994 that he believed that it was cast from the plaster at the Museo Rosso. He is also recorded as saying that a wax on plaster example of ‘Laughing Woman (Small Version)’, acquired by Philip Granville from Danila Rosso Paravicini in 1965 along with T04846, was cast c.1960 from a plaster in the same museum, on the authorisation of M. Paravicini, husband of the artist's granddaughter (Sotheby's, Impressionist and Modern Painting, Drawings and Sculpture, Part II, 29 June 1994, no.135, repr. in col. as ‘Petite Rieuse’).

The fact that T04846 is a relatively modern cast raises a number of questions about its status and value. Rosso himself did not set limits to the edition sizes of his sculptures. Indeed, from 1906, he made no new works and, instead, produced copies and variants of existing works. Nonetheless, there is no evidence to suggest that the artist intended, let alone authorised, a cast such as T04846 to be made. Furthermore, even if T04846 had been cast from an early example (and could be said, therefore, to be close to Rosso's vision of how the sculpture should be), the choice of the particular shade of yellow wax used was clearly not the artist's. The artistic and ethical issues surrounding such ‘late’ Rosso casts are discussed by Sylvia Hochfield in ‘Cast in Doubt’, Artnews, New York, vol.88, Feb. 1989, pp.110–14.

It is now widely recognised that there are many such posthumous casts in both public and private collections. Rosso's practice of making copies of his sculptures, together with a relative lack of contemporary documentation about his output, has made his work particularly vulnerable to forgery: in 1929, that is, only a year after his death, an employee of Rosso was successfully prosecuted for making unauthorised casts (Borghi 1950, p.70). Inevitably, the relatively poor quality of some casts has adversely affected critical opinion. As Luciano Caramel has written (1988, p.3):

Rosso is frequently judged on the basis of poor reproductions of originals, or outright forgeries... Many of the sculptures attributed to Rosso were cast years after his death, even quite recently. Some of these posthumous casts were made directly from the plaster moulds (Rosso often made more than one), some from original waxes or bronzes (in these cases we are dealing with copies that can be of good quality, although not from the artist's hand). Others have been made from existing replicas, resulting in copies of copies in which dimensions are inevitably reduced and clarity and freshness of touch worn away.

T04846 is an example of one of three versions or states of the same sculpture. Briefly stated, these three versions consist of the figure's head, the figure's head and shoulders (T04846 is an example of this version), and the figure's head and shoulders with part of a background plane. In the absence of a fully documented catalogue raisonné, it is not yet possible to state with absolute certainty how many examples of each version exist, or to document the minor variations between the different examples of each type. However, of the version which has the figure's full head, neck and shoulders, there are, including T04846, five known examples. As mentioned above, the Museo Rosso has a wax and a plaster (in 1950 Mino Borghi mistakenly described this plaster as a terracotta). A bronze example, which is believed to date back to the artist's lifetime, was presented by Francesco Rosso to the Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna, Rome, in 1931 (repr. Ottocento/Novecento: Italiaanse kunst 1870–1910, exh. cat., Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam 1988, pl.60; measurements given as 52 × 51 × 22 cm). In addition, there is the already mentioned plaster cast in the collection of the Hakone Open Air Museum. This work, which measures 53.4 × 50.5 × 27.3 cm, was purchased in 1990 from Kent Fine Art, New York, accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from Luciano Caramel, dated September 1990. In this Caramel writes: ‘It is likely that this version, with the bust included but without a background plane, is the oldest version. The possibility that this plaster is the original model of the ‘Grande rieuse’ should not be excluded ... Its provenance is excellent: it was originally in the collection Gili of Biella, as were other Rossos of exceptional quality’.

A wax example of another version, which represents the head alone, was acquired in 1923 by the Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna, Milan (repr. Fagioli 1993, p.89; measurements given as 28 × 20 × 14 cm). Writing in 1950, Mino Borghi indicated that the Galleria del Milione, Milan, owned another wax example of this version, but the present whereabouts of this work are unknown. (He also claimed that another wax of an unspecified version was in the Lampugnani collection, also in Milan, but, again, the present location of this work is unknown.)

Finally, there is the version which includes not only the figure's head and shoulders, but also a flat background plane around the figure. This plane is, in fact, an impression of the surface on which the mould rested, and was a natural product of the casting process. Rosso retained this plane here, and also in versions of two other works, in order to underline what he saw as the unity of figure and environment, and to underscore his wish for his sculptures to be viewed from the front alone rather than from all sides. Contemporary photographs of examples of this version of Laughing Woman (Large Version)’ indicate that Rosso experimented with larger and smaller areas of background plane. A photograph of Etha Fles, an important collector of Rosso works, in her Rome apartment c.1908–9, shows an example (medium and present whereabouts unknown) with a large background plane. A bronze example of this version with a large background plane, approximately 10 cm wide, was presented by Francesco Rosso in 1931 to the Galleria d'arte moderna di Palazzo Pitti, Florence (repr. Medardo Rosso 1859–1928, exh. cat., Frankfurter Kunstverein, Steinernes Haus am Römberg, Frankfurtam Main 1984, p.123; measurements given as 61 × 68 × 22 cm). The background plane in this work shows a slight ridge, following the contours of the figure's head and shoulders. At, or close to, this line, approximately 4–5 cm away from the figure, Rosso terminated the plane in another example of this version of the sculpture, according to the evidence of another photograph, taken in Rosso's studio sometime before 1915 (repr. Caramel 1979, between pp.16 and 17). A touched-up version of the same photograph is reproduced in Borghi 1950 (pl.28, bottom left), but without details of the work's subsequent history.

Some Rosso scholars have claimed that particular works were the ‘original’ or first examples of ‘Laughing Woman (Large Version)’. Scolari Barr (1963, pp.34–6), for example, distinguishes between early and late casts:

In early casts the bust detaches itself like a high relief from a background that is sometimes curved, sometimes trapezoidal, sometimes reduced to a concave fringe. In later versions all indications of environment disappear. The model was a healthy woman laughing freely, her teeth unconcealed by her lips; in later casts the features are less individual, as if behind veils of aerial perspective, the eyes slurred over, the dimples at the corners of the mouth removed, the teeth less accentuated, but the hair is finished off in a pointed knot, and the high cheek-bones and the unambiguous laugh return the blithe feeling of the artist's first idea.

However, it is extremely difficult to determine the order in which the casts were made, given Rosso's working methods and the relative lack of contemporary documentation about his output. Furthermore, as Rosso concentrated for many years on making variant versions of his sculptures, adding or subtracting elements, emphasising or softening details, it is not possible to say that some of the lifetime examples of this sculpture are more authentic or definitive than others. However, in conversation with the compiler of 25 April 1994, Luciano Caramel said that he believed that the examples of sculptures by Rosso with background planes tended to be later in date that the versions without the plane.

In making the different versions of ‘Laughing Woman (Large Version)’, Rosso exploited the casting process in a quite novel way. Typically, he modelled directly in clay, never making any preparatory drawings. From this clay he or his helpers would make a plaster mould. Scolari Barr (1963, p.21) claimed that Rosso used the original mould to make a modello or plaster model: ‘then he made a negative mould from which he cast either in bronze or again in plaster, thereby obtaining a duplicate of his original modello; this he coated in wax, varying many details in each of his new versions’. On the basis of his recent examination of a number of Rosso waxes, however, Derek Pullen believes Rosso made his wax sculptures using the slightly simpler procedure associated with the making of bronzes through the lost wax method. Into the mould taken from the original clay, or a mould taken from a plaster modello, Rosso poured wax. He then added a layer of plaster to the inside of the wax before removing the outer mould. Although Rosso experimented with different patinas and incorporated chance effects in casting his bronzes, he did not, it seems, alter the surfaces of his waxes (though he did vary the colour). As far as Derek Pullen has been able to ascertain, none shows evidence of hand-working, except for repairs, although some, like T04846, have the appearance of having been modelled by hand. However, the existence of one or more moulds allowed Rosso to make casts of casts, varying the overall shape and degree of detail in each one.

Rosso was unusual in treating wax as a material suitable for finished works. His first wax sculpture dates from 1882, but it was in the 1890s that wax clearly became a favourite medium. Writing in 1895, a journalist named Charles Morice discussed how the wax's ductile quality helped recreate the desired effect of a fleeting impression of reality. Rosso claimed, he wrote, that in making a work he stood at the same distance he had been when he had his initial ‘impression’ of the subject. ‘Wax, his preferred material, alone lends itself to the exigencies of this conception of art. He casts it in manner such that, close-to, you cannot distinguish anything other than an extremely vague form, and the block seems badly cut. But step back ... all at once the impression reveals itself’ (quoted by De Sanna, Medardo Rosso o la creazione dello spazio moderno, Milan 1985, p.24).

The date of manufacture of the first example of ‘Laughing Woman (Large Version)’ is generally accepted as 1891. This is the date given in the catalogue of the exhibition Prima mostra dell'Impressionismo e di Medardo Rosso, held at the Lyceum, Florence, in 1910, and is thought to have been provided by Rosso himself. The earliest version of the work was made therefore approximately one year after the smaller portrait of the same figure, ‘Laughing Woman’, known generally by its French titles, ‘Rieuse’ or ‘Petite rieuse’. There are plaster, wax and bronze examples of this work, as well as different versions, which show the figure's face and neck in varying degrees of fullness (for colour reproductions of two versions, see Fagioli 1993, pp.86–7). The smaller ‘Laughing Woman’ is dated on the basis of a letter Rosso wrote to a friend and literary critic, Felice Cameroni, on 29 January 1890, in which he revealed he was at work on a portrait of a ‘theatrical lady’. The model for both ‘Laughing Woman’, 1890, and ‘Laughing Woman (Large Version)’, 1891, was identified by an early source (Curt Seidel, ‘L'Arte di Medardo Rosso’, L'Artista moderno, Turin, 10 March 1911, p.93) as Bianca Garavaglia, a café singer with the professional name of Bianca di Toledo. Nothing is known about her, but it seems that in this period Rosso was particularly interested in the theatre. In 1894 he made a portrait of the Parisian ‘café-concert’ star Yvette Guilbert (repr. Fagioli 1993, p.104 in col.); and a friend, Giorgio Nicodemi, later wrote, ‘Medardo Rosso liked the theatre, and actors and actresses, composers, and writers ... often became the subjects of his interest as a sculptor’ (quoted by Fagioli 1993, p.88).

Rosso, who had grown up and studied in Milan, had visited Paris on several occasions during the 1880s, but it was only in 1889, when he separated from his wife and family, that he finally moved to the French capital. There he worked in hotels and rented rooms until he acquired a proper studio in November 1890 (19 rue Fontaine). At some point in 1891 he moved his studio to a warehouse owned by the painter and collector Henri Rouart in boulevard Voltaire. The chief characteristics of Rosso's mature work had already been established in his earlier Milanese period. He had been influenced by the Milanese sculptor Giuseppe Grandi (1843–94), who, moving away from the classical notion of sculpture as an art of static, enclosed form, had attempted to capture in his work fleeting expressions and the effects of light. Developing this quasi-pictorial approach, Rosso began in 1882–3 to use the tactile qualities of clay and wax to suggest the envelopment of his subjects by light and atmosphere. He later said of this period, ‘I was young and I understood that nothing is material in space, because everything is space, therefore everything is relative ... Here there's shadow and I cannot touch it. There there's a colour, and I cannot touch it. Therefore everything is reflection and every effect is relative’ (interview given in 1923, quoted in De Sanna 1985, p.40). Interested in the positivistic aspects of the naturalist movement that dominated Italian art and literature in the period, Rosso took many of his subjects from among the working classes and the destitute.

In Paris Rosso was encouraged to continue in this path by the critic Cameroni; and he mixed with French exponents of naturalism, including the novelist Emile Zola. He continued to produce and exhibit studies of individuals, portrayed as representative of particular social types and psychological states. Rosso seems to have been particularly attracted by the challenge of representing the transient state of smiling or laughing (see, for example, ‘Ragamuffin’, 1882, repr. Fagioli 1993, p.49 in col.; ‘The Procuress’, 1882, repr. ibid., p.53; ‘Laughing Child’, 1889, repr. ibid., p.81 in col.). De Sanna (1985, pp.80–1) sees in this evidence of the positivist and francophile sides of Rosso's mind. He links Rosso's interest in social types to the work of the Italian psychiatrist and anthropologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), who attempted to diagnose mental attributes on the basis of physiognomy, a fashionable area of interest in French art circles; and he cites the comments made in an essay of 1846 by the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire on the subject of smiling. ‘Is it necessary to demonstrate that nothing that comes from man is frivolous in the eyes of the philosopher? It is certain that there is nothing less frivolous than that profound and mysterious element that no physiology has been able to penetrate. That is the smile. Yes, the smile. The smile and colours are expressed through organs which are the seat of preconceptions and knowledge of good and evil, the eyes and the mouth’.

From the mid-1890s Rosso became increasingly concerned with the formal aspects of his work, in particular, with his attempt to articulate in sculpture what he saw as the interdependence of light, space and form. In later life he felt disatisfied with certain early pieces, including both ‘Laughing Woman’ works, which he felt did not fully express this new vision of sculpture. In 1914 Rosso included a version of the small ‘Laughing Woman’ in a gift of several works to the Ca’ Pesaro in Venice as a point of comparison to demonstrate the superior qualities of the other pieces: ‘despite its fame’, a journalist wrote citing Rosso's own views, the work remained too ‘tied to a statuary interpretation’ and was ‘lacking in light and therefore lacking in colour and in surprise’ (quoted in De Sanna 1985, p.8). When asked about his views on both the small and large versions of ‘Laughing Woman’, and another sculpture, ‘Flesh of Others’, by the painter Carlo Carrà, Rosso is said to have replied, ‘Those are still objective expressions, and they contain less of the spatial, dominantly contrasting, tonality. They transmit less clearly than other works the emotion and the unification of light, space and air’ (quoted by Scolari Barr 1963, p.65).

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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