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One of the three versions of Hayez’s “Kiss,” a symbol of liberation in more than one way, goes on sale in New York

by Marina Mojana

Francesco was little over 60, Angiolina was 38 years younger than him. They had known each other since mid-1800s, when Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), irresistible seducer and renown painter from Lombardo Veneto, used to teach painting at the Brera Academy and was the portrait artist of the main protagonists of the Italian Renaissance.

Angiolina Rossi was a young maid, she had arrived in Milan in search for a job. They met at the painter’s house, where he lived with this wife, Vincenza Scaccia, that he had married 10 years earlier, in 1817. After then, they would never separate.

After working for the Hayez for over 20 years, after Vincenza died (1873), Angiolina was adopted by the artist, who remained a widower without children. Hayez chose to consecrate the love of his life, an affectionate and devoted presence, who remained with him until the very end.

Angiolina was the muse of Hayez’s more mature, sensual and melancholic works, that he painted since the 1850s: she inspired the artist to quit any public modesty and paint the famous “Bacio di Brera” (The Kiss, 1859).

The painting is the first erotic, passionate kiss in art history. Previously, Hayez had signed in 1823 “L’ultimo bacio” (The Final Kiss) between Juliet and Romeo (today at Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo).

But in that work, he dedicated more attention to paint the architecture in the backdrop than the passion of the two young lovers. A few decades later, the new kiss seemed more intense and erotic, a symbol of freedom and love, the love for a country liberated from the Austrian oppressor.

Recreated by Hayez himself in two other versions – known as Il Bacio del Volontario (1861, 1867) – the kiss became a timeless icon, reproduced on chocolate boxes and calendars.
Part of the collective memory of the XX century, the painting was the forefather of other famous kisses: the one captured by photographer Robert Doisneau, in a black and white picture (1945) and the one framed by director Luchino Visconti in the main scene of his movie, Senso (1954).

But what is the price of a kiss? Experts at the auction house Christie’s have no doubts: $1 million at best. This is the highest bid for the painting when it goes on sale in New York, on Monday, April 25, at an auction dedicated to XIX century paintings. On sale is the third version of the kiss made by the artist when he was 76, and the most cherished by the painter, who always kept it in his atelier.

Hayez painted it for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867: the Kiss received enthusiastic reviews, charming, among others, Grand Duke Vladimir of Russia (1847-1909), a well-known seducer, the younger brother of future czar Alexander III of Russia and uncle of Nicholas II.

The painting eventually became part of the Grand Duke’s collection, and was inherited by his daughter, Grand Duchess Helen of Russia, who passed it to her elder daughter, Olga (1903-1997), wife of Prince Pauk Karadordevic of Yugoslavia. Their heirs are now selling the painting.