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Renato Berti was born on 26 October 1884 in Padua, the second child of Giuseppe Marianno Pio Berti, founding owner of one of the town’s leading and most prestigious artistic foundries, and Teresa Randi, daughter of a cultured and wealthy Paduan family.
Renato Berti enjoyed a peaceful childhood of ease and comfort in the city of his birth. He went to the local State school where they earned good marks and where he revealed his passion for drawing. An important milestone was marked by the Berti family in 1890, when the Premiata Fonderia Pio Berti, was established in Padua’s Via degli Scalzi – now Via B. Pellegrini – on the site of the Istituto Camerini Rossi per l’Infanzia Abbandonata. The Fonderia Berti was appointed as one of the two companies to work on the major restructuring project in 1893-95 of the city’s religious heart, Saint Anthony’s Basilica.
The latter years of the century were a time of great satisfaction and public recognition for Renato Berti’s family, but also great commitment and responsibility. Further signs of the boy’s true inclination for the arts emerged in this period: Renato used any opportunity to draw, copy, observe and spent hours gluing motifs, letters and images cut out of his father’s papers and magazines into a huge copybook. Renato lived in close contact with the world of art and, in the more modern sense, with art, crafts and art as craft, but, above all, as the fruit of a marriage between industry and artists. Art as a relationship with the client, as a commitment, as dedication and mastery and art as collecting. The Berti home echoed the thinking of Camillo Boito on the organisation of the Art Academies, In his youth, Renato also spent plenty of time at the antiques shop owned by Pio Berti at 1208 Via San Matteo. The store with its terracotta, ceramics, silver, jewellery, prints, medals and canvases captivated Renato, especially the workings, techniques and representations of the oriental pieces. Here he studied the different materials and design solutions that, albeit in a rather eclectic way, each of the objects presented.
However, tragedy struck the family in the early afternoon of the last day of 1900, when at just 52 years of age, Pio Berti died after a long-suffering illness. Mrs. Berti decided to take her children to Rome, a period of which little is known today, although the family lived at Number 28 Via Cola di Rienzo for a time. After completing his classical studies, Renato enrolled in the Scuola Libera del Nudo of the Fine Arts Academy. Renato lived in Rome for nearly ten years, studying and copying the great masters of the past. Renato Berti realised that while Rome was not a permanent base, he neither wanted to return to Padua.
Paris alone was the true capital of art and Paris became his goal.. Paris had no equal anywhere in the world. Berti arrived in a vivacious, elegant and cosmopolitan Paris in an era when those who went to live there could discover the origins of impressionism, visit the rooms of the Salon des Independents and the Salon d’Automne, but also admire the city’s galleries. In essence, going to Paris meant going to the capital of modernity. Once in Paris, Renato lost no time in joining the cultural and intellectual circles that were to give him his first artistic commissions. The early years in France spawned his larger works, the Portrait de M. Paul Dupuy, the Deputy, Léo Larguier, the poet and Portrait de Mme Suzanne de Behr, the stage performer, all shown at the Salon de la Societé Nationale, the first two in 1911 and the latter in 1912.
The painter soon reaped his rewards when all the main Parisian and French newspapers – Paris Journal, Chroniqueur de Paris, Excelsior, Le Figaro, Dépéche de Toulouse, Aurore, Le Matin and Le Journal des Débats – highlighted the fine elements of Berti’s canvases and, above all, praised the painter’s great skill as a colourist.
In this period Berti was an illustrator for the magazine La Vie Française, for which he captured the uniqueness of Charles Derenne and Francois Perlhou, as well as Leon Lafage and Jeanne Landre, the clean lines of the illustrations a fairly clear indication of his fascination with oriental graphic art.
Meantime, Berti traveled to Italy to exhibit an oil painting entitled Fantasia di sera and a still life called simply Natura Morta in the ‘Italian Artists in Paris’ section of the First National Youth Exhibition of Fine Arts held in Naples. Renato Berti received favourable reviews from both the Commission and the critics, who found the density of colour one of the most compelling features of his work. The Ministry for Public Education, on the opinion of the appointed Commission, awarded the artist a bronze medal in May 1912.
In 1910, Berti, who had already elected Paris as his new home, rented rooms at number 4 rue Aumont Thièville in the 17th arrondissement - a two-faceted setting where the elegant and residential Ternes met the more popular Batignolles, an area much loved by the Impressionists. These rooms were to become his home and studio for more than 30 years, the base from which he was to produce most of his work.
The artist’s early years in Paris were exciting but tough. Perhaps this is why Berti immediately adopted a French name, first calling himself René Berti and later on, when be worked as an illustrator, Ribet. Indeed, Berti needed to gain recognition, create a clientele, to work and Paris was such a fountain of inspiration and research stimuli that his ongoing artistic development was ensured. The years leading up to WW1 saw Berti employed mainly as a portrait artist, although he also accepted still life and animal commissions. He nurtured and strengthened his passion and fascination with oriental art and culture in this period, a key factor in his later work as an illustrator.
The serenity of this first Paris season was abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War, which stripped the city of its festive spirit and shrouded it in the sights and sensations of war. Renato Berti, who was a member of the Unione dei Garibaldini and the Italian Volunteers in France, felt it was his duty to do his bit and went to fight in the Argonne, which erupted into a violent battlefield in December 1914, a battle that lasted well into January of the new year. When Italy joined the war, Berti was called up by the Italian army on March 26, 1916 with orders to report to the Padua Army Base. He entered the war zone and was badly wounded at Monfalcone, leading him to alternate periods of convalescence with returns to service until the war finally ended.
Once back in Paris, Berti removed the dust sheets, reorganised his studio and started to paint again. The studio was Berti’s home and refuge, but it was the people, the wide open spaces of Paris and the small villages dotting the French countryside from which the artist drew his inspiration, especially for his lesser-known illustrative and poster work. The spring of 1921 saw him show his work once again to the Parisian public at the Grand Palais for the Salon della Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a painting entitled Mon Modèle. Berti returned to exhibiting at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and started to design posters and illustrate children’s books. It seemed that Renato Berti had no difficulty in reconciling the art of the poster with the figurative arts and in 1925 took part in a collective show of 85 artists organised by the Société des Artistes de Neuilly at the Salon de Bagatelle, where his Nature morte con frutta won critical acclaim.
Berti continued to show his work at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts exhibitions and in 1923 unveiled a charming Robe rose, while a year later he showed a portrait and two canvases at the Salon des Artistes François entitled Bagatelle and Bruges vielle maison. The summer of 1924 saw Berti spend time at Le Croisic in the lower Loire valley and then at Bruges, the elegant Belgium city famous for its windmills and canal-laced town centre. He also spent longer periods in the tourist spots of the Cote d’Azur and Provence, where he took the waters, but also in Bandol, where he enjoyed the stunning pine forests fringing the coast, and Douai – the city of the Gavant – where, like Corot, he would remain fascinated by the gothic tower that dominates the town. He also traveled to the Central Mass and the Ile de France accompanied by the paints and sketch pads in which quick strokes grew into pictorial notes of faces, landscapes and local scenes.
In 1925, the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Berti presented a landscape called Bruges la nuit, Terrasse au Bord de l’eau aux Tuileries and a canvas entitled Intimité. Back in Paris,. a period that spawned a number of Parisian scenes, smaller sized paintings where Berti uses a light brush stroke, bright colours and a freshness of eye to immortalise some of the city’s most famous landmarks: Pigalle, the bridges over the Seine, the squares and the streets looping the École des Beaux Arts, the Latin Quarter and the great Parisian parks. During this time, he mainly showed landscapes and scenes at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where, in 1926, he exhibited several works: the Vision de Versailles and Venise. Vielle maison sur le Canal Grande, Venise L’Eglise de la Salute and Géraniums à Bagatelle; while Bruges (clair de lune) and Une petite rue blanche au Croisic were shown the year following.
His work as an illustrator for children’s and other books marked a highly important chapter in the artistic life of the Paduan painter. The Laville publishing house of Paris published a numbered, bilingual edition of Das Lied von der Glocke by Friedrich Schiller dated 1927 in French and German illustrated with 16 black and white drawings by Berti and decorated by Maurice Rapegno. Similar research and influences are found in Berti’s classic children’s fairytale illustrations, such as La Biche au Bois, la Belle au chaveaux d’or, Les Aventures de Polichinelle and in children’s books such as Histoires de Chiens and Les Grandes Chasses with texts by Alex Coutet, all published by B. Sirven, the Toulouse publishing house. In 1928, the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts presented Un Ritratto di Monsieur A. Levy and La maison du charron (Vicenza), while the year after it showed Ritratto de Jean Huré and La place aux fruits à Padoue, this last a tribute to his home city. A tribute that was encored in 1930 with the showing of Palais du Capitanio à Padoue and Coq et Poule. In 1929, at the T room of the Salon, the Parisian public admired a Spaniard armed with a rifle and a host.
Berti made fairly frequent trips to Italy, but always returned to his studio in Paris where he had engagements and shows to think of. At the Salon of 1933 he presented two still life paintings and a portrait, which also won the acclaim of Craglia, the art critique for La Nuova Italia magazine. That same year, Renato Berti showed some of his cityscapes, including Jour de carneval a Padoue, at the Salon d’art et de décoration in the Terrasse du Jardin Public. On his return from summering in Italy, Berti participated in a major showing of Italian artists sponsored by La Nuova Italia in the leading Paris art gallery of Jean Charpentier in Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
Apparently untouched by the stimuli of the European avant-gardists and by the calls for order, his dedication to real life confirmed by his study of light, movement and chromatics, Berti continued to show his portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, still life and horseracing paintings in the halls of the Grand Palais.
A year later Berti produced two important canvases Portrait de Bernard Naudin and Portrait de M. Raoul Grigi, organiste, along with another painting where the artist veered into an absolutely modern dimension called En 1935 of a demonstration of unemployed men, about which the critics said “qui évoque la dûreté des temps pour ceux qu’on appelle les cigales, les artistes…”. In 1936, he produced Ébats de Centaures and another scene of his adopted city, Pont Marie, Paris, while in 1937, Berti, now a ‘Societaire della Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts’, showed his Portrait du jokey A. Kalley, “portrait par René Berti, qui a des qualités de fermeté et de couleurs” to public and critical success.
However, the painter’s health was frail and he often visited the coast in the hope of reaping the benefits of the sea air. His last exhibitions on French soil were in 1938 at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where he presented Une arrivée à Auteuil, Un dèpart à Auteuil and Sujet de courses, and at Le Salon de l’Hippique, where his oils and water colours of the world of horseracing and horses caught the eye of the British press: “René Berti’s pictures of horseraces at Auteuil are full of movement” writes the Daily Mirror. The last months of 1938 were frenetic with shows and delivery dates to meet, but especially the organisation of the shipment of his paintings to Italy for the Vicenza show. Early 1939 saw Berti finally ship his work to his sister’s house on the Riviera Berica, shut up his studio and head for Italy. Renato Berti had ho idea he would never return to Paris. Berti’s Vicenza show in the elegant setting of Palazzo Brunello, on what used to be Corso Principe Umberto, Vicenza’s main thoroughfare, was a great success, but it was to be his last. Indeed, Renato Berti was to enjoy his final success in his homeland of Italy. A few months after the show closed, he died in the early hours of the morning of September 24, 1939 at the Ospedale Civile of Vicenza after being admitted some days earlier for an infection.
Submitted by Isabella Amaduzzi, art historian