Mariano Fortuny Marsal

Reus, 1838 - Rome, 1874

  • North African Landscape

    c. 1862
  • Bullfight. Wounded Picador

    c. 1867

Without a doubt, Mariano Fortuny is the most internationally known 19th-century Spanish painter. He is also the great European master of the refined cabinet painting. His art contributed decisively to the taste developed by the market and the clientele of his day for tableautins depicting anecdotal genre scenes, and traces of his influence can be found in a vast number of students, followers and straightforward imitators of his art.

Born in Reus (Tarragona) on 11 June 1838, Fortuny was orphaned at an early age when his carpenter father died. He was placed in the care of his grandfather, a sculptor of wax and wood. He first studied at the School of Drawing in Reus and later moved with his grandfather to Barcelona, where he received a scholarship to study at the Llotja art school. The following year he became a pupil of the Nazarene master Claudio Lorenzale (1815–1889). Lorenzale’s style clearly influenced the early work of Fortuny, whose outstanding artistic skills already set him apart from other members of his generation.

Thanks to a grant awarded by the Diputación (provincial council) of Barcelona, in 1858 Fortuny visited Rome, which he likened to “a vast cemetery visited by foreigners”, although it would exert a powerful influence on him for the rest of his career and his life. During those years he executed many drawings, attended the Accademia Chigi and came into contact with the local colony of Spanish artists, with whom he frequented the Caffè Greco.

In 1860 the Diputación dispatched him to Morocco to act as a visual chronicler of the Spanish-Moroccan War. His fascination with the Arab world, which would play such an important role in his later career, dates from this moment. On returning to Spain he passed through Madrid, where he made copies of paintings by the great masters of Spanish art at the Museo del Prado. A splendid testament to this activity is the superb watercolour copy he made of Velázquez’s Menippus (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado), which he kept for the rest of his life.

Having been commissioned by the Diputación to execute a large painting of the Battle of Tétouan, before returning to Rome Fortuny visited Paris to study the battlefield pictures of Horace Vernet. This commission would require a great deal of effort and determination and he made countless studies and sketches for it over a number of years.

As part of his research for this work, Fortuny returned to Italy and travelled to Morocco again in 1862. He learned the local language and dressed in Arab clothing so as to pass himself off as a native. During this trip he painted some of his most famous works such as Odalisque and the watercolour entitled Il Contino, which he sent back to Barcelona to show that he was putting to good use the stipend he was being paid while completing the commission.

With a new studio on Via Flaminia in Rome, by this time Fortuny enjoyed huge international fame thanks to his extraordinary mastery of his art, as the quality and virtuosity of his work were outstanding in the European art scene of the day.

The Diputación eventually stopped paying his grant because they had not received The Battle of Tétouan (now in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona), which Fortuny would take the rest of his life to complete and would always keep in his studio. The Duke of Riansares, Queen María Cristina of Bourbon’s morganatic husband, became Fortuny’s patron. He painted Isabella II and María Cristina Reviewing the Troops (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado) for one of the ceilings of the duke’s palace in Paris.

In 1867 he married Cecilia Madrazo, the daughter of the great portrait painter Federico de Madrazo (1815-1894), in Madrid. He became such close friends with his brother-in-law Raimundo de Madrazo (1841-1920) that they even painted some pictures together. That same year he executed one of his masterpieces, The Spanish Wedding (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya), which enjoyed immediate success when he exhibited it in his Roman studio as well as later in 1871 when it was shown at his dealer Adolphe Goupil’s gallery in Paris.

Around this time Fortuny made further trips, visiting Seville and also Granada, which he toured with his best friends, the landscape painter Martín Rico (1833-1908) and Joaquín Agrasot (1837-1919). In their company Fortuny discovered the attraction of the local lustreware, arms and other crafts of Arab origin. By his own account these were the best days of his life.

Later, during a sojourn at Portici (Naples) where he had rented the Villa Arata, he caught malaria. This led to the illness that claimed his life in Rome on 21 November 1874.

The death and funeral of this extraordinarily famous artist who was celebrated in his lifetime was deeply felt by the city of Rome. His body was laid in state in Santa Maria del Popolo.

José Luis Díez