Freshly returned from Paris, where he had gained a reputation as the painter of pretty women, at the end of the 1890s Vittorio Matteo Corcos started exploring the underlying psychological dimensions of his favorite subject: women. Marking a departure from his previous paintings that revolved around peacefully content subjects, some of the artworks from this period turn a dark corner. It wasn’t so much a deliberate artistic effort for the Italian portraitist – society itself was changing, bringing forth a new type of woman, educated and emancipated.
The Addict (La Morfinomane) is perhaps one of the most unusual artworks that Corcos ever painted, in stark contrast to his signature style consisting of bright colors, clear lines and a rather banal adherence to convention. The color palette is incredibly dark, with browns, olives and black taking much of the composition. At the same time, the blurred lines give us the illusion of haziness, as if we’re intoxicated ourselves when looking at the beautiful redheaded vamp: a morphine addict. This cold-hearted upper-class woman, wearing a fashionable black dress, is fiercely intimidating. It’s not just her penetrating and predatory gaze that is unnerving, but also the unabashed way in which she occupies and controls the space she inhabits. Until that point, it would have been unheard of for a woman to pose like this, like … a man. At her feet lie a white bearskin and a book, symbols of her intellect and the command she exudes. And, as if that wasn’t enough, look at how her right foot pins down the bearskin, in an act of utter domination.
Perhaps Corcos needed such a dark palette to emphasize the sickness of her body and soul, how she has fallen prey to excess. The paleness of her face and arms gives us the impression that there is no blood warming her body, no affection stirring it. But the bare shoulder clearly marks her sexual abandonment. As she’s sitting at slight angle in the armchair, she looks completely irreverent about convention. It’s more of a snapshot than a formal portrait. It’s a glimpse of a new era, one of luxury and decay, vanity and intellect, dominance and self-oblivion.