Everyone who loves painting, Vermont or both must see the Luigi Lucioni show this summer at Middlebury College’s Museum of Art. Lucioni (1900-88) was, after all, the greatest artist ever to work in this state.
Evidence of his achievement abounds in this exhibit of some 75 oils, etchings and watercolors smartly curated by museum director Richard Saunders. Works spanning Lucioni’s long career are on view, giving a clear sense of his technical development and his stylistic consistency.
A 40-year-old documentary presented at the start of the show is worth watching despite its passé production values. In it, Lucioni insists he’s not really a realist — notwithstanding the narrator’s accurate description of his work as “highly detailed.” Lucioni notes that he sometimes moves mountains purely for visual effect.
But there’s no disputing the exactitude of his draftsmanship, which is on a par with that of Lucioni’s Italian Renaissance heroes. His ability to depict human faces as well as landscapes with both formal precision and emotional power is one of the qualities that sets Lucioni apart from his Modernist contemporaries.
He speaks somewhat defensively in the documentary about how his representational style caused him to be ignored or dismissed by many of the most influential critics. But Lucioni did feel at home in the mainstream. He knew what the American public wanted in its art, and he delivered it in virtuoso fashion.
Lucioni worked winters in his Greenwich Village studio and did plein-air paintings in Manchester, Vt., every summer. His connections to the state run deep. Lucioni’s chief patron was Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum, to which he bequeathed many of his works, including a portrait of his father that he considered his best. It hangs in the show, as does a stunning still life owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Also included is “A Farewell to Birches,” completed shortly before Lucioni’s death in 1988. Viewers will be especially moved by this piece if they consider that nothing quite like it will be painted again.