This post comes to us from Rena Tobey, Curatorial Intern.
Venture into our café and look for a painting that will take you to a whole new world of fun. Wedding Feast by Frank di Gioia puts you right in the pulse of the party—the noise, the hilarity, the free-flowing wine. Di Gioia painted what he knew, the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City where he grew up.
The figures may look cartoonish to you, but notice that each person is having a distinctive experience. From a mother comforting a baby to men yelling in exuberant delight, from raucous dancers to people quietly eating their meal, every family member and friend probably looks just like someone you know. Because of the caricatures, the scene might come across as satire. But di Gioia’s obvious affection and warmth come through.
According to the artist, the scene is a compilation of many Italian weddings he witnessed. All the guests would line up to approach the “bridal throne” to congratulate the bride and groom with kisses. Don’t miss the kisses here. The bride tries to pull away, and the groom gets a huge lip smacker. Guests also gift the newlyweds with an envelope containing money, helping them start their life together debt-free.
Although this connection is not immediately apparent, di Gioia was influenced by “Old Master” painters. He believed that Renaissance and Baroque artists had already solved the problems of form and space, and that modern artists only needed to inject the spirit of their time for originality. Here’s a case in point.
You can imagine the joy di Gioia must have taken from the Jan Steen painting, borrowing the compositional window frame to contain his holiday partiers.
Several of his contemporaries followed the same impulse. Look at how similar the composition of Wedding Feast is to Reginald Marsh’s In Fourteenth Street. Both artists use a triangle, a Renaissance organizational device, to contain their crowd of figures.
So does Theresa Bernstein, moving from the Wedding Feast party in the hired hall to the elegant salon of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Reception. Like Bernstein and Marsh, di Gioia has removed the religious content from his secular scene teeming with jumbled bodies—no longer a Last Judgment, but instead the throngs of modern urban life.
Di Gioia was also not alone in creating bulbous figures. Who comes to mind right away? Columbian painter Fernando Botero and his Dancing Couple. Compare them to any of the jitterbugging figures in Wedding Feast.
Even though the simplified roundness of the figures are the same, notice how di Gioia’s rowdy revelers in Neptune’s Grotto come across very differently from Guy Pene du Bois’s cool Night Club scene. Di Gioia resonated with the people from his working-class neighborhood to form his distinctive voice, while Pene du Bois satirized high society.
Remembering di Gioia means remembering a time in urban life when immigrants defined neighborhoods. A time very much like today.