Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, silk and secrets

by Maje Pérez-Ramos

As the Madrid Museo del traje recently reminded us, this month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, a multifaceted artist who lived between the 19th and 20th centuries. From the mosaic of artistic trends that arose at the turn of the century, from that eternal struggle between what feels old and what feels modern, emerged an artist-artisan, industrial designer and businessman; a painter meant to change the course of fashion, photography, theatre and textile production in the 20th century.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born in Granada in 1871 with everything it was taken to succeed in painting: his father, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, was one of the greatest painters of the 19th century and his mother, Cecilia, belonged to the illustrious Madrazo dynasty. After his father’s premature death at the age of 36, Mariano and his family moved to Paris, where he was trained as a painter. His interests, however, led him to also study chemistry and other sciences that would later allow him to develop his full potential. When he was 18, the family moved again, this time to Venice. Fortuny was a citizen of the world, but Venice became his forever home. In 1898 he moves into the ruinous Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei. In the following years, he would restore it to its former splendour, turning it into his house-atelier and filling it with precious objects of all kinds.

In these years he began to explore new horizons beyond painting. According to information from the Fortuny Museum (Venice), his love for the theatre and scenography led him to design a large collection of diffused light lamps and a dome system to illuminate the stage with cloudy skies and other projections that would be installed by AEG in the most important theatres in Europe. At the same time, he worked as a decorator and lighting specialist for the wealthiest families on the continent.

Around 1906, his interest turned to fashion and textile manufacturing, surely inspired by his mother’s collection of historic fabrics. With the help of his muse and lover, Henriette Negrin, Mariano began to sell the fabrics and garments which would make him famous. Recreating the costumes of Ancient Greece, as opposed to the Belle-Epoque aesthetic and its corsets, together they designed numerous pieces, the most famous of which was the Delphos dress, inspired by the Auriga of Delphos, a Greek sculpture discovered around those years.

In a fascinating analysis of one of these dresses written by Mª del Mar Nicolás Martínez, from the Madrid Museo del traje, the author tells us that, after visiting Greece with Henriette in 1906, Fortuny began reproducing designs he had seen on Cretan pottery and textile remains from Antiquity. The magic of the Delphos dress, immune to the passage of time, lies in several factors: the pleating of its silk, the brilliance and beauty of the colours in which it was produced and the apparent simplicity of its structure, which enhances the female silhouette without oppressing it.

Regarding the pleating of the silk, Mª del Mar Nicolás Martínez says that “the method for obtaining it was patented by Fortuny in June 1909. The patent gives, logically, the minimum information about the system, stating only that the way to obtain the pleating was by squeezing and twisting strips of wet fabric tightly between the hands until they were wrinkled in the direction of the length of the fabric, and then making the horizontal waves. These were obtained thanks to a semi-mechanical procedure consisting of inserting the fabric, suspended from a frame and tensioned by a counterweight, between a series of hot metal tubes arranged transversally in the frame of a devise designed by Fortuny himself; these tubes acted on the wet fabric, creating irregular and permanent folds and waves, of great ductility, with enormous expansion, which enabled the dress to adapt to the body, modelling it and revealing it without false modesty. On this basis, a few months later, on 4 November 1909, Fortuny registered in Paris the Delphos model. The cut of the dress is very simple and is structured on four pieces of fabric of equal size which are sewn together, joining the widths, giving rise to a cylindrical piece of equal width and height. This tunic is fitted to the shoulders by sewing the upper edges together, leaving, logically, a central opening for the neck and two side openings for the arms”. Over time, several variants of the original model were made, but the aesthetic always remained the same.

As for the colours, the author also tells us that “the dazzling range of colours displayed in the Delphos – indigo blues, emerald greens, carmine reds, oranges, pinks, ivory whites, violets… – with their iridescent shades that change with the light, is due to the dyes used by Fortuny in their manufacture. All of them natural, whether of mineral or organic origin, they were made using secret formulas taken from old manuals on the art of dyeing, as well as from old recipes entrusted to him by old craftsmen from the Veneto region. Fortuny never revealed these formulas, and the legend goes to say that, the day after his death, his widow Henriette threw the colours made by her husband into the waters of the Venice canals so that no one could imitate them. Something which, if true, she really did achieve, because despite the numerous analyses that have been made of the fabrics, it has not yet been possible to find the formula for these colours, so a perfect reproduction of them is not yet feasible”.

The immediate success of his creations propelled Fortuny’s career, and he opened a factory on the Venetian island of Giudecca in 1922 to meet the demand for his products. Thanks to his contacts, he established a select network of distributors across Europe and the United States. As we are told by the Fortuny textile brand, which continues the artist’s legacy, the New York interior designer Elsie McNeill Lee was, from 1928, the exclusive distributor of the brand in North America. Despite his successes and recognition (he was Honorary Consul of Spain in Venice and a member of the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts, among many other honours), his biographical note in the Royal Academy of History reminds us that, with both the First World War and the crash of 1929, Fortuny was on the verge of ruin. Despite of these setbacks, he managed to keep his business afloat thanks to McNeill’s help and by selling, at great personal expense, pieces from his invaluable art collection.

After a life devoted to work and the pursuit of beauty, Mariano Fortuny died in his beloved Venice in 1949, from a stomach cancer. Henriette, according to his wishes, wanted to donate part of his legacy and the palazzo to the Spanish State, but the government renounced it and, instead, the donation was accepted by the City of Venice, which turned the palazzo into the Fortuny Museum. Curiously, Fortuny’s creations, which today are kept in the Museo del traje, were bought in 2003 from the Austrian collector Liselotte Höhs for 2.967.273€ by INDITEX, as a settlement of part of its corporate tax.

After Fortuny’s death, the brand outlived its founder and went on. At Henriette’s request, Elsie McNeill, by then a friend of the couple, acquired the firm and ensured the smooth running of the Giudecca factory in the following decades. In 1988, Elsie sold the company to her friend, Egyptian millionaire and philanthropist Maged Riad, whose sons Micky and Maury are the current owners.

Mariano Fortuny undoubtedly took many of his secrets to his grave, but his artistic and industrial legacy can still be enjoyed in the exquisite fabrics that the Fortuny factory continues to produce, in the paintings, watercolours and engravings that fill his Venetian palace or in his coveted garments, which are exhibited in the world’s finest museums. Increasingly difficult to find, some Delfos are still within the reach of the most privileged women (see image gallery).

A curious fact to end this article: the Prado Museum holds one of Fortuny’s last works (and plenty, in contrast, by his father). It is a self-portrait painted two years before his death with a special tempera he himself created, of course. According to the description of the work, “the painter made these pigments using information provided by craftsmen in northern Italy, keeping their composition secret for years and selling them at the end of his life, due to financial problems”. A bittersweet end, as life so often is, for this 20th century Leonardo, alchemist of art and fashion.

Find out more:

– The current Fortuny brand, continuing Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo legacy in textiles.

– The Palazzo Fortuny in Venice.

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Vestidos y tejidos de la colección del Museo del Traje, by Mª del Mar Nicolás Martínez (in spanish)

– The Delphos dress today, a video by Doris Raymond, owner of the prestigious L.A. based vintage fashion store The Way We Wore.

Image: Palazzo Fortuny, Google Arts & Culture.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment