The Meditation – Francesco Hayez

I write about a lot of art, but I always prefer writing about something I have seen in person, rather than looking at a photo that has been taken of it, and on the most part I have been lucky enough to see a good percentage of them.  It allows me to see the true colours and get the real emotion which can come from the size of the canvas, or the brush stroke.  You can really tell were the artists passion was an their very definite intentions.

Needless to say, last week I got to see this amazing painting.  From across the gallery floor I was struck by it, and so drawn into the intense look on the woman’s face, that I really didn’t notice the paintings around her.

Francesco Hayez was born in 1791, to a relatively poor Venetian family.  He had 4 siblings and was bought up by his aunt, who was married to a well off ship owner and art collector.

Hayez showed an aptitude for drawing at an early age, so was encouraged into an apprenticeship as an art restorer.  He later became a student of Francesco Maggiotto, studying with him for 3 years, then applying to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1806, where he studied under Teodoro Matteini. In 1809 he won a competition from the Academy of Venice for one year of study at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. He remained in Rome until 1814, then moved to Naples where he was commissioned by Joachim Murat to paint a major work depicting Ulysses at the court of Alcinous. In the mid-1830s he attended the “Salotto Maffei” salon in Milan, hosted by Clara Maffei (whose portrait Hayez painted for her husband), and he was still in Milan in 1850 when he was appointed director of the Academy of Brera there.

Francesco Hayez lived long and was prolific. His output spanned both historic paintings, including those that would have appealed to the patriotic sensibility of his audiences and others reflect the desire to accompany a Neoclassic style to grand themes, either from biblical or classical literature. He painted scenes from theatrical presentations of his day. Conspicuously lacking from his output, however, are altarpieces intended for devotional display. However, after the Napoleonic invasions deconsecrated many churches and convents in Northern Italy, the region was not lacking for religious artworks that were removed either to museums or concentrated in the remaining active religious institutions. Corrado Ricci describes him as starting as a classicist but then evolving to a style of emotional tumult.

Hayez portrait work have an intensity which is really demonstrated in “The Meditation”, and echoes the work of Caravaggio, using the same lighting techniques and stark backgrounds to really concentrate the focus on the integral figure.

In the painting you can see a woman with an intensely brooding look on her face, her right breast is bare, with a white dress, falling from her shoulders.  In her hand a book entitled “Storia d’italia” (History of Italy) and the other a cross with “” engraved in to it.  She is seated on leather backed chair.

At first the imagery in this piece can be quite confusing, as it does look somewhat religious, although there is a sultry sexuality about the woman.  The book has intentionally been made to look like a bible, but the title leads us to understand it is actually about the making of Italy, and the dates on the cross are indicative of the Five Days of Milan – which was the start of the rebellion in Milan in 1848.

The five days of Milan was staged by a group of young republicans who were bored of the poor living conditions, so put together a demonstration calling for freedom of the press, thousands turned out for this, and initially the government building was captured, word spread quickly through Milan, gathering supporters as many barricaded the streets with anything they could find.  As word spread the Austrian military were ordered to recapture the government building, leading to many isolated battles due to the barricades that had been set, this was a benefit to the Milanese as it made movement around the city difficult and allowed them to capture ammunition and arms from the enemy.  While this was a minor success for Milan, it would take another 2 years before the battle for independence was won by Italy and then another 22 years before the unification was completed.  Hayez was disappointed about the failure of the first war of independence.

There are several versions of this painting, the first being created in 1848, and then with this particular version being adapted in 1851 for Veronese Court, each time the woman is shown with a look of melancholia and contemplation on her face.

So what was Hayez trying to show?  Hayez was a fiercely patriotic to his country and this painting was a strong political message of disappointment from the success of five days of Milan, with bloody battles in the streets to the failure of the first the war of independence.  The mock bible  and cross mark the remembrance of the start of this, and the deaths of the Milanese people.  The woman indicates martyrdom, the thoughts of what could have been and the hopes of the younger generation of Italy, many who fought and lost their lives in the initial battles.

The painting, is highly hypnotic, as I said earlier, I was mesmerised on seeing it in the Verona gallery, and the woman is in a state of meditation which has not yet come to conclusion, which for Hayez, was a very real feeling of the political turmoil of the time.  This painting dominates any room that it is hung in, and has a very peculiar draw to the audience, perhaps because of its provocative and sensual composition.

There are a few things that I noticed about this painting on viewing… Firstly it looks like Hayez changes the hairstyle of the woman, there is thicker paint around the hair which potentially looks as though she either had her hair up, or was wearing some form of bonnet, the change to her hair falling over her shoulders, draws the viewers eyes downwards from the look on her face, to the naked breast and ultimately the book and cross, so while an obvious change, was not one that was made without thought.  Secondly the light source is coming from the right, as though it is a divine light, mixing with the religious connotations of the items she is holding.  To me, this makes me feel that while turmoil was happening in Italy at the time, Hayez felt that the hand of god would guide them through.

This painting is magnificent, which is something you may not truly pick up from just seeing a photo of it, so I would urge anyone visiting Verona to take the time out just to visit this gallery (it will only take about an hour to walk around) and view this piece in person.

What do you see in “The Meditation”? Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

Want to see more of what inspires me or what I am working on?  You can find me on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram by searching WidowCranky.

Always wondered about a piece of art?  Why not ask me if I know about it?






2 thoughts on “The Meditation – Francesco Hayez

Add yours

  1. There was a significance to a bared breast wasn’t there? I vaguely recall you writing about it.

    When composed, did the artist block in the book and cross and then later add the details (title, date)? Or was the woman actually holding the items as is?

    Age of the model: was there a common age, through out the various artistic eras, for models? Rarely do we see an older woman used as a model.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I wasn’t there but this version of the painting was done after the five days of Milan. So he knew it had happened and the aftermath of it.

      As for model age… generally you see types of all ages in paintings… but if you want to deliver a political statement… well sex sells

      Liked by 1 person

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