Invited to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle, sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) left Milan for Paris in 1889, accompanied by Milanese literary critic Felice Cameroni (1844-1913). This paper assesses Rosso’s position as foreign artist in fin de siècle Paris by considering how he constructed a unique hybrid “cosmopolitan-as-outsider” identity. While most foreign artists felt “cosmopolitan” by fitting into the French artistic scene, Rosso’s cosmopolitanism led him to feel at home in the world by refusing to adapt to the realities of the Parisian art world, but without retreating to Italian stereotypes.
Cameroni’s position as an early cultural mediator is fundamental to Rosso’s story, exemplifying novel, more intimate, and swifter modes of communication between nations in this period. He nurtured Rosso’s fantasies before departure with firsthand, up-to-date knowledge of the Parisian scene. Recognizing Rosso’s originality and intuiting a place for his art in Paris, Cameroni connected Rosso to successful expats and powerful French literary figures, such as Émile Zola, Edmond de Goncourt and Paul Alexis. His intermediary role anticipated other powerful cultural mediators, like Ardengo Soffici after 1900.
With no comparable case of a foreign sculptor moving to Paris in this period, Rosso must be categorized alongside expat Italian painters such as Giuseppe De Nittis, Giovanni Boldini and Federico Zandomeneghi. In contrast to these painters, however, Rosso’s desire to join the Paris scene without compromising his vision meant limited commercial success or official recognition. At the same time, this outsider stance spared him criticism regarding excessive commercial accommodation often leveled at Italians, and preserved his distance from nationally circumscribed French artistic concerns. Being a foreign sculptor with no access to French public commissions exacerbated Rosso’s case. Indeed, imagining a national monument in France made by a foreigner in the 1890s, especially by an artist who shunned the monument tradition itself and instead established a radically new language for sculpture, would have been impossible.
Rosso’s case exemplifies a modern consciousness about artistic mobility within frameworks of internationalism, while reflecting entrenched national realities and prejudices haunting the lively Parisian scene, in which “universal phenomena [were] being integrated into a national context without possible contradictions being noticed.”i His story reveals an awareness of the tensions between France’s apparent openness towards artistic cosmopolitanism yet its insistence on maintaining its superiority over other countries. Ultimately, the supra-national identity Rosso envisioned would only be substantiated by foreign artists arriving in Paris after the turn of the century.