Divisionism is an Italian painting movement that developed between 1885 and 1915; it was essentially born from Impressionism and further developed its research on the decomposition of colors and light. Spread in several parts of Italy but with the main artistic center in Milan, was officially born in 1891, when the first pointillist works (and in particular the Maternity of G. Previati) were exhibited at the Brera Triennial exhibition arousing interest and lively controversy.

From the development and diffusion of optical studies and scientific theories of colors established by Newton and further developed by H. von Helmholtz and the experiments of J. Mile, those schools of painting known as complementarism, divisionism, luminism originated, which in different ways sought greater luminosity in painting. But it was only long after Newton’s discovery of the decomposition of light into the seven colors of the spectrum that Lambert scientifically recognized how coloring substances behaved in mixtures in a different way from light rays, until in 1834 Mile succeeded in obtaining effects similar to the mixture of lights in the spectrum, by combining minute parts of complementary colors. And, since it has been proved that two coloring substances mixed together maintain active and unaltered their faculty of absorbing light, each mixture will mean greater absorption of light, that is, a greater sense of blackness – the greater the greater the number of colors that form the mixture – while with the combination of coloring substances there will be greater light because each color will absorb light only according to its faculty.

In this way, the intrinsic meaning of Divisionist painting is achieved: greater luminous intensity. From these physical premises, the technique of divisionist painting is clear: by abolishing impasto and glazing, it does not mix the colors on the palette but spreads them in their different elements directly on the canvas, combining them into minute particles (dots, patches, filaments, beads) whose roughness and compactness also benefits from greater refraction. The perception of the image in its complete fusion no longer occurs because it is thus created on the canvas, but exists only insofar as the superimposition and fusion of the images in our retina can take place. We have, that is, in a sense, an increase in subjective possibilities in the understanding of the work of art, since it is proven that retinal sensations vary in different individuals.

The Divisionist movement was the result of an essentially intellectualistic attitude that found its comfort and its reason for being in the new scientific discoveries. It was an idealistic-sentimental tendency with notable hints of mysticism which, wishing to react to the various verist currents, already tended to go beyond impressionistic luminism to arrive at abstract luminism, at universal light, the source of every creature. In other words, Divisionism can be considered as the extreme and paradoxical consequence of Impressionism; while the Impressionists had stopped at the realization of light as a chromatic element, the Divisionists even wanted to achieve the luminous sensation through scientific formulas.

But, if with the new technique a clearer, brighter painting was obtained, it cannot be said that its values were higher, since the luminous value of a painting does not depend on the light it collects and therefore sends back, but on those special and subtle laws of the relationships between light and dark, of the contrasts between warm and cold, luminous or opaque colors already perfectly understood and applied by the ancients. The too strict and scientific translation of the physical-chemical law very often deviated the artist from the immutable pictorial values to produce, through an excessively mechanical technique, cold and tiring works. Moreover, the execution was very long, the spreading of the coloring particles had to be definitive and the eye had to be able to sustain the effort of immediately and exactly forming on the retina the mixture resulting from the various chromatic combinations. In these same difficulties lies the condemnation of that special technique which today can be considered as an exponent of an outdated artistic movement, even if some Italian Divisionists, like Segantini, have left a great reputation for themselves.

Pointillism is an entirely modern movement in relation to its scientific presuppositions; however, ancient painting shows how the realization of the image through the juxtaposition and not the impasto of color had already been known for some time. However, while modern pointillism was nothing more than an intellectual movement and an application of new scientific contributions, ancient pointillism was the natural expression of an art in its infancy combined with reasons of an essentially practical nature.

The most significant example of pointillism is in fact offered to us, already in the highest antiquity, by the mosaic. But the reason that pushed the mosaicist to reinforce the contrast of colors in the juxtaposition of the mosaic tesserae was the opposite of that of the divisionists, because in doing so, he sought to achieve that form and design that the modern school has instead dissolved in the rampant and absolute empire of light. Divisionism in the mosaic is all the more evident the more it has large tesserae and a limited chromatic variety; in fact, when we arrive at a work executed with very small tesserae and a rich chromatic assortment, the passage of the areas of color almost cancels itself out in the gradation of the colors, so that the fusion no longer occurs in our eye but has already taken place in the execution itself. This is found both in classical times – both in mosaics of direct inspiration and in copies of lost paintings (e.g. the Battle of Alexander in the Naples Museum) – and in the Middle Ages, for example in portable diptychs (e.g. the diptych in the Naples Museum). The logical consequence of this type of mosaic in imitation of painting will be the compositions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (e.g. S. Marco in Venice, S. Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome) up to the modern mosaics of the factory of S. Pietro.

The same instinctive reasons that guided the mosaicist in antiquity also guided the painter; however, we can only speak very broadly of a divisionist sense in classical painting and in that of the very first Christian centuries. There is divisionism insofar as colors are used that are clearly distinct, not mixed, insofar as the coloring is broken up into different elements, insofar as form, color, design and movement must result from the whole of this painting that can also be called “a macchia”. But weakened the classical influence, we assist to that development of the painting realized with juxtapositions of pure colors to streaks, to breaks, to decided strokes, where the abundance of the white lights in the clothes and in the flesh tries to offer the idea of the form and the depth. S. Maria Antiqua in Rome, the crypt of the cathedral of Anagni, S. Angelo in Formis, S. Clemente in Rome are different paintings of time and type, where we find evident the technique to juxtaposed zones of colors that was followed in the same time by the miniaturists. But, even if with the progress of the centuries such instinctive divisionism is maintained in the mosaic for the same nature of this, with the new conquests the painting leaves the old technique to reach the glazing and the impasto.

An interesting and curious hint of pointillist intentions can be found much later in the work of Baldassarre Orsini, an 18th century stage designer who, in his writings on scenography, touches on problems of aerial perspective, of relationships between color and color, and deals with the separation of pure colors, the “luminosity” of the masses in painting, the gradual dampening of colors in the shadows without them losing their luminosity, speaking also of works “to be seen in the distance and in the open air” and of the consequent “degradation of colors in relation to distance”. Based solely on observations and pictorial experience, having noted the influence that colors exert on one another, it follows that this reciprocal influence of luminous “squares” must be utilized by subtly separating the hues so that the strength of the color is balanced with the juxtaposition of differently colored strokes. He makes ample use of this embryonic, but nevertheless completely felt, divisionism, finally arriving at saying that one must not use a single hue but that this must be “varied, stained, diverted” so that the “squares” acquire that luminosity which makes them seem like masses of color disintegrating into vibrations of luminous chromaticism.

It is difficult to determine where pointillism first established itself in our day; for if the French pointillistes date back to around 1885, already around 1870 in Italy Daniele Ranzoni intuitively anticipated scientific research, painting with an instinctive pointillism some heads where luminous vibration was realized. In France pointillism was baptized when Georges Seurat of the pointillistes group (so called because their painting was made of dots) exhibited in 1886 Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte. His followers were Camille Pissarro, Pau Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce, Theo van Rysselberghe, but Henri Martin, who tried to apply pointillism to mural painting, established himself above all.

In Italy among the many innovators excel Victor Grubicy, Gaetano Previati, Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo, Angelo Morbelli, Plinio Nomellini, Enrico Lionne, Giovanni Segantini, Carlo Fornara. But not all of them understood and expressed divisiomsmo in the same way. Segantini was able to make it an absolutely personal expression by virtue of his own artistic power. Segantini, who had already asserted himself with a broad, dense brushstroke and with a good knowledge of chiaroscuro, encouraged by Grubicy, who was in Italy the herald of the new theory, about 1887 remade his Ave Maria a Trasbordo according to Divisionist methods. But he didn’t suddenly become and wasn’t totally Divisionist; in his first works in fact (Alla stanga, Mucca all’abbeveratoio, Ragazza che fa la calza) the colors are divided but not reduced to just complementary. The more he approached the new method in the following paintings because that filament painting lent itself to his very special painting of high mountains, where everything is a vibration of light. But since he did not consider light as an end of art but only as a means to better express his own inner vision, he was able, with those filaments, to draw and model, building his paintings with a solidity ignored by the other Divisionists. Thus, for more intimate reasons, Morbelli and Pelizza da Volpedo dedicated themselves to painting. For Morbelli, pointillism was an effective way to envelop every creation in an atmosphere of diffused twilight, to spread over everything a veil that removed all determination, suffocating every voice until it reached the state of sadness of his own sick spirit (Il natale dei rimasti, Giorno di festa): pointillism is used as a means of spiritual expression. For Pelizza, the new technique offered resources of vaporous lightness and sentimental reality well suited to the translation of his innermost feelings into subtle rhythms as in Pastorale, Morticino, and Processione.

But while these painters used Divisionism without breaking completely with the ancient tradition of painting, Gaetano Previati is to be considered the true and most convinced Divisionist, so much so that he came to concretise his research and doctrines in two books: Della pittura. Tecnica ed arte (Turin 1913) and I principi scientifici del divisionismo (Turin 1906). In all of his works he kept strictly to the technique he advocated, whereby color, drawing, and expression are overwhelmed and cancelled almost by the continuous and indefinable vibration of light. But to all this vaporous inconsistency Previati was able to give a particular meaning of ideality and mysticism so that his painting does not suffer from the lack of form and design. In reality, the Sun King, the Journey into the Blue and the Passion of Christ rise to the value of symbols where one can no longer really find pictorial color, but only light as the generating element of every color.

Divisionism in Italy

Divisionism was a movement within Italian painting that spread throughout the peninsula but had a particularly lively center in Milan. Developed between the last decades of the nineteenth century and 1915, had an official date of birth in 1891, when the Brera Triennial were exhibited some works (including Maternity Previati), which showed the public the terms of the new research. The group of painters linked by a common interest in the scientific laws of light and color (in addition to Previati, D. Ranzoni, I. Cremona, G. Segantini, Pellizza da Volpedo, V. Grubicy) started from the analysis of the theories of optical perception developed by H. Helmholtz, M.-E. Chevreul, Th. Rood, in tune with what was happening in France in the group of painters pointillistes.

Unlike the French, who moved from Impressionist experiences and insisted mainly on the scientific nature of their operation, the Italian Divisionists faced the very knot of artistic creativity, of the suggestive power of imagination in the creative phase and the resulting image, to which the Divisionist technique offered, thanks to brushstrokes of pure but filamentous color, sometimes smudged, always vibrant, a tool to intensify the symbolic and oneiric climate to which they especially cared.

The theorist and animator of the group was Victor Grubicy de Dragon, a painter with a wealth of direct experience in the artistic circles and museums of many European countries. In Grubicy’s idea there was the desire to merge the modern technique based on the laws of color decomposition with the luministic tradition that characterized the Lombard painting of the nineteenth century. In the development of the group’s poetics, Grubicy exalted that sort of nervous hypertension which lay at the basis of every creative process and which consisted in the illusory constitution of the objective and real vision with a significant synthesis of the impression that corresponds to the overall vision already painted.

Among the theoretical texts of the group, Previati’s Principia scientifici del divisionismo (Milan 1906) was significant, even if late, in which he defined the pictorial procedure of divisionism, which “reproduces the additions of light through a methodically minute separation of the complementary colors”. A certain attention to social themes is not extraneous to the group: A. Morbelli and G. Pellizza da Volpedo participate in the Divisionist movement, but with an adhesion that is essentially aimed at linguistic results rather than poetics.

Italian Divisionism was polycentric. Milan was certainly the place of greatest ferment, but also in Liguria (P. Nomellini, R. Merello, G. Barabino, G. Cominetti) there was a lively climate of formal experimentation. In Piedmont, C. Fornara was sensitive to the results of the proposals that came from Lombardy. In Rome, the movement had a certain weight and wide support (C. Innocenti, E. Lionne, A. Noci) and with G. Balla converged in one of the major Italian avant-garde movements, Futurism. Boccioni, Severini, Russolo and even Carrà, in fact, adopted the technique, and in part also a certain symbolist taste, that had characterized Divisionism in Italy.