Emma Ciardi’s work typifies the wistful spirit of a particularly poignant period in the history of European culture. Born in Venice in 1879 into a family of artists, Ciardi studied under her father, the distinguished Italian realist artist Guglielmo Ciardi, an associate of the proto-impressionist Macchiaoli painters, who specialized in views of the Venetian lagoon, Lombardy and the Veneto.
In her late teens, along with her brother Beppe, she took up painting professionally and exhibited for the first time in 1900 at the age of 21 at both the Universal Exhibition in Paris and the Promotrice in Turin. Three years later Ciardi showed for the first time at the Venice International Exhibition, where she would subsequently exhibit regularly until 1932. In 1905 she won a gold cup at Munich, taking another at the 1915 San Francisco Exhibition, where she showed alongside her brother and her father.
Ciardi’s favored subjects were the north Italian landscape and the great villas and gardens of her home town of Venice. Although in composition and subject matter her work was influenced principally by Guardi and Longhi, her technique was in a style of highly textured impressionism using a palette which recalled Whistler, Monet and John Singer Sargent. Gradually however, she came to specialise in the neo-18th century genre scenes of which the two works illustrated here provide fine examples.
Venice, in the halcyon days of the Belle Epoque before the Great War, was a charmed place, drawing to its palazzo society the aristocracy and gilded youth of Great Britain, Europe and America. The city’s magic was sustained by the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James and in the work of such painters as Sickert, Mortimer Menpes, Frank Brangwyn, and William Merrit Chase. But above all it was Sargent who captured the spirit of the place, his numerous, highly commercial Venetian views possessing, as one reviewer remarked “the intensity of a dream”.
The same might be said of Ciardi’s works of the time which, less academic, were also deliberately fanciful in their chocolate box evocation of an imagined Roccoco arcadia. Ciardi perfectly perpetuated the mood of hedonistic escapism, her romantic fetes galantes mirroring the vogue for 18th century costume balls typified by those thrown by the city’s Grand Dame, the flamboyantly eccentric aristocrat the Marchesa Luisa Casati.
Their enormous popularity was demonstrated by the success of Ciardi’s first solo exhibition in 1910 at London’s celebrated Leicester Galleries, which was followed by a second there in 1913, at which both of these paintings were shown.
After the Great War, as the lure of Venice once again offered an escape from the tragedy of the real world, Ciardi was again in the ascendant and, during the 1920s, she received great acclaim in the USA, with numerous shows at the Howard Young Gallery in New York. Further successful exhibitions were staged in London by the Fine Art Society in 1928 and 1933.
Emma Ciardi died in Venice in 1933 and two years later was celebrated with a retrospective at the fortieth Venice Biennale.