Eugene de Blaas was a an Italian painter born in 1843 he is best known for his works painted in the Academic Classic style.
When most of us think of Italian art, we tend to think of the Old Masters. Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Vasari – the names of the Italian Renaissance loom large.
But part of what gives Italian art such power is its unique mixture of body and soul, one derived from centuries, sometimes millennia-old movements and counter movements – it doesn’t all begin and end with Leonardo.
Yet the Classicism of the Old Masters proved potent enough to be reinvented and revived with the rise of Neoclassicism.
This was the “accepted” style of at the Académie des Beaux-Arts throughout much of the 18th and 19th century, which was the “Academic” Classicism in Paris when Eugene de Blaas attended.
Yet, de Blaas’s art stands out from that academic tradition. Emerging in the late 19th and early 20th century, as Impressionism gave way to first Post-Impressionism and then varying shades of Modernism, he doesn’t fit into those traditions, either.
At first Monet and then Van Gogh broke new ground in color theory, and then Picasso, Weimar Modernists, and Italian Futurists revolutionized what art was or could be, de Blaas stuck to a more Academic realist style while shedding its stuffy connotations.
So who was this underappreciated Venetian artist, and where does Eugene de Blaas stand in the story of Belle Epoque and Italian Art?
1. Family and Early Life
De Blaas is known as a Venetian painter, but he was born in Rome.
His father was Karl de Blaas, a successful and likewise-academic painter who trained at the Academy of Vienna. There, he became enmeshed in the Vienna social circles and painted Franz Joseph as a boy in 1853.
He became a fresco and portrait painter before becoming a professor 1855 at the Venice Academy, where he would stay for a decade. Venice had been a huge attraction for artists in the 18th century given its incredible beauty and reputation for culture and beauty.
By this point the Venice’s Medieval and Renaissance glory days were long past, but were past enough to become classical – perfect fodder for an art scene that prized the Neoclassical.
Eugene himself was born in 1843, and was raised in the Venetian Neoclassical scene. Following in his father’s footsteps, he likewise trained in Neoclassical painting styles and focused on scenes of his native Venice, beginning with portraiture and religious subjects.
2. Artistic Style
Throughout the decades, however, de Blaas’ work would incorporate an element of the everyday which is in direct contrast to the tradition of mythic and historical paintings embraced in the Neoclassical style.
He obviously doesn’t approach the experimentation that was going on with the renegade Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Pointillists, and other Avant Garde artists of the period. de Blaas’s training and, thus, his paintings were far more conservative.
Even so, there is a vivacity to his Venetian paintings which escape the static state of many Neoclassical and subsequent works.
Much of this comes from de Blaas’ treatment of his Venetian surroundings, which imbue his work with a sense of reality, if not “grit.”
His settings are given just enough style and gloss to appear “pretty” while still appearing to take place in real, “lived in” spaces.
Backgrounds such as those found in “Die Wasserträgerin,” “A Pensive Moment,” and “The Water Carrier” feature brick and stone backgrounds which evoke a sense of the Venetian landscape and, more broadly, Northern Italian towns and cities in the late 19th and early 20th century.
In this sense, de Blaas can be seen as an artistic forerunner to a subsequent great Italian artistic innovation – Neorealism in cinema.
The films of Rossellini and Visconti feature everyday people in everyday settings with an emphasis on reality. However, their settings and often characters (in films such as Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta) are often far grittier.
By contrast, de Blaas’ warm color palette and focus on women may evoke Millais and Waterhouse in the minds of late-19th century art lovers.
Indeed, de Blaas’ work – successful in his time and beyond – was exhibited at the Royal Academy various times between 1875 and 1891. However, far from Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite Medieval Ladies, Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shallot,” or either artist’s take on Ophelia, de Blaas’ women lived squarely in contemporary Northern Italy.
This rich balance between realism and theatricality helped de Blaas carve out his own niche.
He had showings not just at the Royal Academy but all over Europe, with UK exhibitions at the Sons Gallery in London, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and Fine Art Society.
3. De Baas and the Everyday Italian Woman
Women are a recurring theme throughout his work. In particular, de Blaas’ work eschews the aristocratic elite for figures of the working and middle class. These figures come from a wide range of backgrounds and are typically engaged in scenes common to work and social life in the area.
This movement away from the mythic and extraordinary toward mundane and every day. By this point, Manet had already shocked the art world with his “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and “Olympia” – two portraits prominently featuring female nudes in a non-mythic but contemporary setting.
But where Manet was pioneering Impressionism, de Blaas was still firmly entrenched in the Academic style, as he would be throughout his career.
Another significant point of departure between de Blaas and an artist like Manet is his depiction as women – namely, as clothed, and sumptuously so. While Manet broke artistic ground and social taboos with the two aforementioned nudes, de Blaas only painted one nude in his career, “Dans l’Eau,” which remains in a private collection.
Women engaged in dignified manual work feature prominently in de Blaas’ paintings, from several portraits of fruit sellers to “A Young Fishwife.”
Otherwise, while other works such as “De Musette” feature a coy figure posing alone, de Blaas’ women are typically part of a scene.
Works like “The Balcony,” for example (1877, also in a private collection) depicts a tableau of four women in various poses leaning over a balcony, the expression and body language of each highlighting the contrast between them. “On the Terrace” and “Ladies on a Balcony” from 1875 function much the same way, both with typical Venetian domestic balcony settings. By contrast, “Daydreaming” from 1890 features a lady recumbent with a fan on a window ledge with an ambiguous, dreamy expression.
A unique artistic voice whose vision combined Academic Classicism with the rugged Northern Italian landscape and ethos while featuring women as figures of complexity, ambiguity, and dignity, de Blaas died in 1932.