(1852 - Rome - 1930)
The Little Ballerina, c. 1885
oil on canvas
154 x 76 cm
Rome, collection of A. La Rocca
F. Bellonzi and C. Lorenzetti, Antonio Mancini, Rome, 1953, pl. 16.
F. Bellonzi, Antonio Mancini, Milan, 1962, p. 22, pl. XXXIII.
With his assured and fluid brushwork Antonio Mancini portrays a young girl dressed in the costume of a ballerina. Working in the legendary slums of Naples, the artist famously used the local circus performers, street musicians and impoverished children as his haunting models. Our dark-eyed, dark-haired ragamuffin is imagining herself as an elegant and sophisticated ballerina. Her dress is pulled high on her bare torso but it is still much too long to actually allow for dancing. As if anticipating the maturity of the child, Mancini includes the nebulous figure of a woman in a painting hung in the background (fig. 1). There is a touch of sadness in this scene of dress-up: the future for the little ballerina is more likely to involve dancing on the street than on a stage.
A kind of uneasiness exudes from the girl’s expression and stance. It is as though the famously intense painter has made her stand in her pose for too long and it has lost its naturalness. Her left hand is rigidly situated on her hip while her right arm, adorned with gold bangles, hangs by her side. She self-consciously worries the precious gold band on her index finger. With questioning eyes and a forced smile the young model stares back at the artist studying her. The fun of dressing in special clothes has lost its allure as she patiently waits for her modeling session to end. One could surmise that sitting for Mancini was a stressful ordeal to be endured. A visitor to the artist’s studio described Mancini’s eccentric working methods:
There at the back, before a little table on which I see scattered an infinity of bric a brac, cloth flowers, embalmed stuffed birds, an inexpensive doll, there is the model Aurelia, an insignificant type of woman with olive complexion and an aquiline nose. She was posing as a vendor. Mancini, in shirt sleeves, extremely nervous, bustled about delivering brush strokes, that resembled blows of a whip, onto a canvas supported on the back of a chair. He snorted, he muttered to himself, he cursed at the model who wasn’t able to remain still, then he quickly distanced himself from the subject and bent down on his knees. Plump and not too flexible as he was, he stooped down and withdrew from his pocket binoculars which he used to view her in reverse. All of this while panting out of breath, and raving like someone obsessed.
One of Italy’s greatest modern painters, Mancini is best known for the theatrical virtuosity he “whipped” into his portraits. Often teetering between painterly abstraction and realism, his working methods were daring and innovative. The composition of our Ballerina can be divided in two parts: the upper which is sharper and modeled with a sensitivity utterly absent in the lower half where we see Mancini’s signature bravura brushwork. The quickly painted shoes, clothes, and painter’s palette at the child’s feet are barely discernible details when viewed closeby. The visionary artist achieved his glistening surfaces by applying thick impasto, occasionally enhanced by adding pieces of glass, metal foil and other materials. The surface of the present work is a sensual treat. The deliciously thick application of paint in the gilt frame in the background and the swirls of pigment to create textured fabric reveal Mancini’s delight in painting.
Mancini invented a painting technique using a graticola – or perspective grid. The artist constructed wooden frames with strings stretched in all directions. One would stand in front of the subject and another was placed against the canvas. Often the strings left marks that remained in the finished composition adding to its abstract quality. Mancini was a precocious child, admitted to the institute of Fine Arts in Naples by the age of twelve and exhibiting at the Paris Salon by twenty. In the 1870s Mancini travelled to Paris to try to make a name for himself in the capital of the art world. There he met Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet and became friends with John Singer Sargent, who famously declared Mancini the greatest living painter.
It was upon his return to Naples that Mancini found the success he sought in Pairs. He achieved considerable acclaim with a series inspired by the scugnizzi, peasant children, at the salon of Adolphe Goupil. As talented as he was, Mancini's career was plagued by disabling mental illness. He eked out a precarious existence with the support of fellow artists, American and Dutch patrons. In 1881 he suffered a mental collapse that necessitated a prolonged hospital stay. By 1883 the painter was stable enough to move to Rome where he remained for twenty years until he moved to Frascati, where he lived until 1918. Though at times destitute, Mancini was kept afloat by his principle patron, the marque Giorgio Capranica Del Grillo and by a circle of wealthy English patrons introduced to him by Sargent. He produced notable society portraits for these clients and for American patrons who traveled to Italy. Even before he found success in Italy, Mancini was a much-discussed controversial figure in America, supported by a small group of artists and patrons there. The fragile artist was also supported by Dutch painter Hendrick Mesdag who sent Mancini a regular allowance for twenty years and sold his paintings for him. Mancini sent Mesdag works of art in return for his support, around one hundred and fifty in all.
It is poignant that an artist who lived constantly on the brink of psychological and financial collapse would choose street urchins as his subjects, their own fragile existence dependent on performance and thieving. In the years following World War I Mancini found more stability, and his work reflected that renewed serenity until his death in Rome in 1930.
 Augusto Jandolo, Le memorie di un antiquario (Milan: Casa Editrice Ceschina, 1938), p. 176