Enrico Donati

Enrico Donati (Italian American 1908-2008)

Enrico Donati, an Italian-born American painter and sculptor was considered by many in the art world to be the last of the Surrealists.

Mr. Donati survived Surrealism and moved through other art movements, including Constructivism and Abstract Expressionism, and became a successful owner of a perfume company.

After receiving a doctorate in what would now be called sociology at the University of Pavia in 1929, he first turned to music. Unhappy with the state of musical education in Milan under the Fascists, he moved to Paris and for a time composed avant-garde music in a Montmartre garret. He developed an interest in anthropology and in 1934 traveled to the American Southwest and Canada to study and collect American Indian artifacts.

After dabbling in commercial art and printing in New York, he resolved to commit himself to painting and returned to Paris, where he was drawn to the flourishing Surrealist movement.

When war broke out in 1939, Mr. Donati returned to New York for good, along with his first wife, Claire Javel, and their two daughters, Marina Donati and Sylvaine Mahis of Paris, who survive him. He was divorced from Ms. Javel in 1965 and married Adele Schmidt, who also survives him, as well as a daughter from his second marriage, Alexandra Donati of New York; five grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Mr. Donati attended the New School for Social Research and in 1942 had his first one-man show at the New School’s gallery. His work impressed the art historian Lionello Venturi, who introduced him to the writer André Breton, often considered the father of Surrealism. Breton brought him into the circle of prominent European artists, many of them Surrealists, who had gathered in New York at the outset of the war.

“You are one of us,” he recalled Breton saying to him. The group included Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Arshile Gorky, Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger and the American sculptor Alexander Calder.

“We met for lunch every day at Larré’s French restaurant on West 56th Street,” Mr. Donati later told an interviewer.

At his death, he was the only survivor of the group.

Duchamp became a particular friend. They collaborated on various projects, including the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme at the Maeght Gallery in Paris in 1947. They devised the exposition’s program, decorating the cover of each copy with a foam rubber breast.

As Surrealism faded, Mr. Donati moved on. “He reinvented himself four or five times,” said his biographer, the artist and critic Theodore F. Wolff.

There was his Constructivist phase and, for a time, a focus on Abstract Expressionism. In later years, Mr. Donati became fascinated with surface and texture, mixing his paint with sand, dust, coffee grounds and, at times, the contents of his vacuum cleaner, which he mixed with pigment and glue and slathered on his canvas.

“It opened up a new world for me,” he recalled in a 1968 oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution. “I kept on using the vacuum cleaner dirt for years.”

Mr. Donati’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Art in Houston and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

Mr. Donati was for many years as engaged in the business world as he was in the world of art. In the early 1960s, he joined the board of Houbigant Inc., one of the oldest purveyors of French perfumes and eau de cologne. In 1965 he bought the company, which was privately held.




Aswan IV×

42 x 36 inch
106.7 x 91.4 cm