Artwork of the Month

Nazzareno Cipriani (Italian, 1843–1925)
Head of a North African Woman
Watercolor over traces of pencil on paper, 15 x 11 in.
Signed lower right: N. Cipriani

Nazzareno Cipriani is best known for landscape and genre scenes, typically sentimental and usually situated in either Rome or Venice. Although mostly self-taught, Cipriani worked in the Roman studio of Achille Vertunni and at the Academy of Gigi Talarici, where he met the famed Spanish artist Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, who exposed him to the art of watercolor. In 1875, Cipriani helped found the Society of Watercolorists in Rome, which became internationally known — particularly in connection with Orientalist art. Through this society, Cipriani befriended — and spent the next three decades of his career in close proximity with — at least two of Rome’s watercolorists specializing in Orientalist scenes: Filippo Barolini and Enrico Tarenghi. Cipriani’s Head of a North African Woman reflects this association.

The Italian artist had little knowledge of North Africa himself, but he likely turned to this theme because of the popularity of these types of images in contemporary Rome. By the later 19th century, representations of beautiful exotic women in vibrant clothes and luxurious jewelry were admired as studies of beauty rather than ethnographic studies characterizing earlier artistic portrayals of North Africa. With the expansion of photography, such images of non-Western figures became less about recording likenesses than producing an engaging work of art. Cipriani’s lack of first-hand knowledge of the region and the people, therefore, would not have impeded his creating this watercolor of a Head of a North African Woman. The artist depicts a portrait bust view of a dark-skinned woman wearing a beautiful striped head wrap and lavish gold jewelry — both items that would have indicated her foreign-ness to Cipriani’s Italian audience. His Head of a North African Woman is not a portrait of a specific individual, but an image of an anonymous woman. She sits before a solid cream-colored background, blankly gazing into the distance.  Although Cipriani has beautifully rendered her attire, the image’s focus is not upon the specific details that would identify her home, but upon the picturesque figure’s expression of a somber self-absorption.