In almost every piece of clothing Mariano Fortuny created it is possible to discern a trace of his adopted home of Venice. Coat, c.1920, shows many of the hallmarks of Fortuny’s printed velvets, in particular his understanding of the Venetian heritage of Orientalised Renaissance pattern and the unique light and atmosphere that art historians have long noted of the lagoon city and its art.
Around 1907 Fortuny embarked on the path of clothing and textile design that led to the emergence of his signature Delphos dress, a delicate accordion-pleated silk gown, inspired by the draped and clinging tunics depicted in Classical Greek statues. Fortuny’s work garnered an artistic circle of supporters, including the likes of author Marcel Proust, dancer Isadora Duncan and collector Peggy Guggenheim. Equally important in Fortuny’s oeuvre was a range of hand-dyed and hand-printed garments – jackets, coats and tunics – that were worn over his famous pleated dresses.
The full-length Coat has been cut in a simple rectangle composed of four pieces of cloth open at the front. The dark green silk velvet is stencilled with silver and gold pigment in a design of serpentine trails and floriated motifs such as pomegranates, pine cones, oak leaves and pinks. The design is reminiscent of patterns found in Renaissance and Baroque brocaded silks while the stylised pomegranate and bud motifs that dominate were recurrent Orientalist themes in Fortuny’s textiles.
Fortuny not only designed the fabrics and garments but also, with the help of his wife, Henriette Negrin, developed the complex processes for making them. Working mainly in silk, and occasionally cotton, Fortuny experimented with the dyes, blocks, stencils and machines needed for the patterning and colouring of the fabrics and new methods for pleating and printing. The often intricate and laborious processes that his fabrics underwent ensured that each textile had its own unique characteristics.
The best of Fortuny’s velvets were usually unevenly dyed and printed for an added illusory effect. This often accentuated the inherent luminosity of the material. His masterful handling of gold and silver, unevenly distributed as in Coat, involved printing, painting and embossing with stencils, brushes, sponges and blocks while varying the pressure to the fabric. These processes contributed to the subtle complexities of colour and texture that give works like the Coat its effect of shimmer and haze, which for Fortuny’s admirers, evoked the faded beauty of Venice.
Fortuny was born in Granada, Spain, in 1871, the son of the painter Mariano Fortuny y Marsal. The family moved to Venice in 1889 where Fortuny would remain for the rest of his life. In a quiet, unassuming manner, Fortuny’s work stood at the forefront of early twentieth-century dress reform. His clothes were designed to drape over an uncorseted female body in contrast to the tight, restricting styles of the day. While maintaining an artistic practice as a painter, etcher, photographer, and set and costume designer, clothing and textile design dominated Fortuny’s career until his death in 1949.
Roger Leong, Curator, International Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).