Campanian artist Carlo Pellegrini died on 22 January 1889 in London, where he had spent most of his life and gained fame as a clever caricaturist of politicians and royalty under the pseudonym ‘Ape.’

Pellegrini was born on 25 March 1839 from a noble family which claimed connections to the Medici, the all-powerful political dynasty which shaped the history of early modern Florence from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Thanks to his noble status, Pellegrini was introduced to albert Edward, later King Edward VII, in 1862. This important acquaintance encouraged Pellegrini to move to London in 1864 and introduced him to the most select circles of Victorian high society.

At the Prince’s own residence in Marlborough House Pellegrini encountered such personalities as Gibson Bowles, founder of Vanity Fair, a newly established political magazine. Impressed by Pellegrini’s skill, Bowles commissioned him to draw a caricature of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Published on 30 January 1869, the chromolithograph was immediately successful and established Pellegrini’s reputation abroad.

As one of Vanity Fair’s most sought-after artists, Pellegrini had ample opportunity to refine his elegant style, described by a biographer as “a sting coated in honey.” Artistic abilities went hand in hand with a bohemian personality, eccentric appearance, and strong Neapolitan accent, creating an immediately recognisable personality which was appealing for its uniqueness in the strict Victorian society.

Completing exclusive commissions such as a series of caricatures for the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, dining in his private room at Pagani’s on Great Portland Street, and socialising at the Arts Club in Hannover Square, Pellegrini became friends with some of the most important artists of the nineteenth century, for example James McNeill Whistler and Edgar Degas, who painted his portrait as a memento of their friendship.

References: Eugenia Querci, “PELLEGRINI, Carlo,” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 82 (2015),; C. Paladini, “I grandi napoletani all’estero: C. P.” in La Settimana. Rassegna di lettere, arti e scienze, vol. 2 (1902), pp. 425-431.

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Carlo Pellegrini, about 1876-7, oil on laid paper, 62.6 x 34.2 cm. London, National Gallery (on loan from Tate: presented by The Art Fund 1916). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Carlo Pellegrini, Benjamin Disraeli, published in Vanity Fair, 30 January 1869, cromolithograph, 35.5 x 23 cm. New York, CCNY Libraries (Gift of Dr. David Klein). Source: Wikimedia Commons. The image caption reads: “No.13. He educated the Tories and dished the Whigs to pass Reform, but to have become what he is from what he was is the greatest Reform of all.”

Carlo Pellegrini, John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll, published in Vanity Fair 19 November 1870, watercolour, 29,8 x 18,4 cm. London: National Portrait Gallery. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Carlo Pellegrini, Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, published in Vanity Fair 13 May 1871, pencil, watercolour and gouache, 30.6 x 18.6 cm. London: National Portrait Gallery. Source: National Portrait Gallery. 

Carlo Pellegrini, James McNeill Whistler, 19thcentury, etching with plate tone, 30 x 20.1 cm. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1917). Source: The Metropolitan Museum. 

Carlo Pellegrini, Portrait of Whistler, 1877, brush and dark brown ink on off-white wove paper, 10.5 x 11 cm. Chicago: The Art Institute (Gift of Walter S. Brewster, 1933.230). Source: The Art Institute of Chicago. Inscribed verso, at top, in ink: “Portrait of James Whistler. Done & given to me by / Pellegrini at the Arts Club. Tuesday night. 11. Dec. / J.H. McC. 1877.”  

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