Sinister Thoughts

Francesco Hayez is usually regarded as the main exponent of Italian Romanticism. This movement is different from its French and German counterparts and focuses mainly on history painting; subjects are often connected with the struggle of Risorgimento, that is to say, the Italian quest for independence and political unity. Hayez, an important figure of his time and eventually president of the Academy of Brera in Milan, dedicated the main part of his oeuvre to this, although he is also renowned for portraits of famous characters of the time, for instance the great writer Alessandro Manzoni.


F. Hayez, Portrait of Alessandro Manzoni, 1841 oil on canvas, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

However, Hayez produced also some allegorical depictions, such as the Meditation on the History of Italy or the less famous Melancholy Thought. It is the depiction of a young woman, portrayed in a muddled and yet contemptuous state. Although the title matches easily the image, thus conveying a sense of easiness to the viewer, I believe that its interpretation is quite complex: the painter focuses its attention on her expression, leaving the surrounding shallow and empty. The viewer, in fact, engages the work of art in a direct contact with the depicted figure, as if in a silent dialogue.


F. Hayez, Melancholy Thought, 1842, oil on canvas, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Hayez condensed different layers of emotions, catalysed by the grim face: there is indeed some degree of tension, whose core is the dismissive frown of the eyes. Looking at those in front of her, she stays silent with bitter contempt. Her lips are closed and tense, there is not relaxation as she is holding them tight, maybe retaining a disgusted comment. While she appears  in an evident state of disorder, her face expresses distant apathy: she observes while being observed, and yet we have the uneasy feeling that we are those being judged.


 Actually, she seems to have been caught in a moment of privacy, even though she does not care: she is clearly gazing at somebody, and yet she is not covering her naked shoulder. On the contrary, she keeps her hands tidy, close together: they express order, control, consciousness as opposed to the casual fall of the dress’ folds along her pale arm. Somehow, it seems she is offering her own body to our view, with no passion nor pleasure, in a disturbing mixture of sensuality and carelessness. The bunch of passing flowers on the right, the only lively coloured spot of the painting, emphasises the idea of disorder and decay.


Clearly, Hayez is elaborating an emotional status that goes beyond the mere melancholy, and he strengthens the final result by the addition of a shabby environment which pairs with the young woman’s unhealthily pale skin, her untidy hair, the contemptuous expression. The complexity, I believe, overcomes the mere label of melancholia leading us in a sinister, unsafe emotional territory.


Melancholy Thought

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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