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THE FOURTH ESTATE, 1898-1901, Oil on canvas
Acquired with a public subscription, 1920

History of a Masterpiece

Il Quarto Stato [The Fourth Estate] – the masterpiece painted by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907) – is an emblematic work from an artistic, technical, and social point of view.
The scene is set in a square in the painter’s hometown and represents the protest of a group of workers marching toward a better future, purporting the cohesive strength and dignity of labour as the starting point for the redemption of people.
It is a monumental painting on which Pelizza worked between 1898 and 1901; a period characterised by strikes, protests, and demands of the working class – all subjects that painting also addressed at the time.
The final version required a long period of study, lasting a decade. Three previous versions are known: Ambasciatori della fame [Ambassadors of Hunger] (1892), Fiumana [The Human River] (1895), and Il cammino dei lavoratori [Workers Marching] (1899), the latter being the closest version to the final painting that Pellizza entitled Il Quarto Stato drawing inspiration from the writings of Jean Jaurès on the French Revolution.
The painting was presented to the public at the 1902 Turin Quadriennale and remained unsold, although it soon became a famous and much reproduced icon for the message it conveyed. In 1920, in the heated climate of the Biennio Rosso (a two-year period of intense social conflict in Italy), Il Quarto Stato reached Milan on the occasion of a solo show at Galleria Pesaro. The uproar it raised was such that a public subscription was launched to ensure that the City would purchase it. It was initially exhibited in Sala della Balla of Castello Sforzesco and was later moved to Galleria d’Arte Moderna to be displayed in its current seat of Villa Reale.
After World War II, the painting was transferred to Palazzo Marino, the City Hall of Milan, as a symbol of democracy and civil rights. It is no coincidence that, in 1979, it would be chosen by filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci for his film Novecento.
It was rediscovered as a masterpiece of Italian painting while studies of Divisionism flourished, concomitantly with its exhibition in London and Washington. In 1980, it was transferred back to Galleria d’Arte Moderna. After a decade, when it marked the spectacular opening of Museo del Novecento, inaugurated in 2010, this monumental painting was returned to the Gallery of Modern Art in July 2022.

Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Milano
via Palestro 16 - 20121 Milano


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The Technique of the “Separation of Colours”

Considered from time to time a manifesto, an icon, or a symbol, Il Quarto Stato [The Fourth Estate] is first of all a masterpiece of Italian painting, where an illustrious tradition blends with modern style and technique.
Pellizza carried out a large number of preparatory studies and even produced large sketches both for the characters in the foreground and the crowd in the background, made up of groups linked with one another, for which the artist had his fellow countrymen and family members pose. He then relied on tracing paper to transfer the composition onto the final canvas. The technique is modern, scientific, and confident; the composition of the scene and the gestural expression of the characters testify to the extensive figurative and historical-artistic culture of the painter, who drew on the study of the Renaissance, in particular Raphael’s La Scuola di Atene [The School of Athens] – that the artist could analyse thanks to the drawing conserved at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan – and Leonardo’s Ultima Cena [The Last Supper] with its rendering of the “motions of the soul”, as well as the symbolic strength of gestures in Michelangelo’s works.
The canvas is painted with tiny dots, lines of pure colour, resulting in a dense weft of filamentous brushstrokes. This technique was championed in Milan by Vittore Grubicy and developed beginning in the second to the last decade of the nineteenth century, concomitantly with the French experiences. Its main feature was the use of “separated colours”, which were not mixed on the palette, but rather laid down as pure pigments on the canvas: the optical colour mixing occurs in the eye of the viewer. The brilliance and luminosity of every single pigment was maintained, in the wake of the perception of colours theorised by Michel-Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood.
However, if French Pointillism was more interested in the scientific facets of colour theory, Italian Divisionism focused on achieving light effects able to suggest or accentuate emotions and feelings.
Pellizza embraced this technique around 1892, applying it to works such as Sul fienile [On the Barn] and Processione [Procession], soon becoming one of the main representatives of Italian Divisionism together with Giovanni Segantini and Gaetano Previati.