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Rosso was born in Turin, where his father worked as a Railway Station manager. When his family moved to Milan, Rosso started cutting classes to work as stone carvers, distressing his parents. At the age of 23, after a spell in the army, he enrolled at the Brera Academy, where he learned to draw classical statues and copy them in stucco. Rosso rebelled at the academic art lessons focused on classical statues, demanding instead that life models could be used for the drawing classes. He left the Academy and moved to Rome, where he lived in poverty. Angelo De Gubernatis, in his 1889 almanac of living artists, quotes assesses Rosso:
(He) rebelled at each school, with each method, with each Academy, abhoring anything that smacks of trade, of artifice, soon found himself alone, without support, without master, without counselors, and with a bunch of captive and envious colleagues (who tripped him, when) he tried his way and to demonstrate his abilities, his ingenuity. But the Biblical (saying) Go alone! did not frighten him, even in those long daily vigils struggling with a whole system which for many years had triumphed, despite the strong supporters of this and that opponent, he felt his strength increase, developed his talent, he conceived a vast new artistic horizons have not yet been attempted by others, and began to work and hold it to the test.
In 1882, Rosso produced his first impressionistic sculptures,The Street Singer and Lovers under the Lamplight. In 1884 some friends arranged an exhibition for him in Paris, where he lived for a time in a cheap boarding-house. He also exhibited that year in Paris at the new Salon des Indépendants. He met Edgar Degas and Rodin. The sculptor and teacher Jules Dalou allowed him to work in his Paris studio.
In 1885 Rosso returned to Milan, but he never lost contact with Paris. He entered a competition in Milan for a funeral monument to the critic Filippo Filippi, and Rosso, who had quickly finished his entry, set it up on the grave without waiting for the judges' decision. In 1886 the writer Émile Zola bought a bronze by Rosso, who thereby gained a measure of celebrity. Rodin offered to exchange a torso of his own for Rosso's recent head of a laughing woman. Rosso's work, praised by Degas, always enjoyed greater esteem in France than in Italy.
Rosso's constant concern to translate into solid sculpture the transitory effects of light. So by means of rough, spontaneous modeling he manipulated light and shade in such a way as almost to produce the effect of color. In this process the distinctive characteristics of his material played an increasingly important part. A paraphrase of Gubernatis states:
The rules of art, knowledge, culture, will benefit very well the proportions of a given work ...but will never tell you anything, or yield the most applause... or reveal the soul, the expression, the moment with the same truth that is presented to us at that time, under the impression given in the real world... (Rosso's) Bersagliere at the Paris Salon that is so loved, and so talked about in papers, is a successful head, there is truth, there is expression, there is color. For the artist, it all lies in knowing to choose the right moment to characterize the subject, and this divination, this deep feeling mixed with some knowledge of the individual is the main talent of genius, the hallmark of his work . He is very keen to the idea, the concept. But for an artist to be truly worthy of that name, (he) must first be original. Having an ideas of art, attending one school rather than another, does not say anything. The important thing is to dig in and derive from your brain the first impression it receives of a work, and render them as you feel and receive them...Medardo Rosso is realist, but (only as a) realist that gives the enchanting beauty of nature, of feeling, of the heart, representing the vices and virtues, the beautiful and the deformed.
Rosso was able to maintain a studio in Paris and to hold a number of exhibitions. In 1896he exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in London. He also had a success in New York. Toward the end of his life he suffered from diabetes and developed cancer in a foot. He made few sculptures after 1900, and died after the amputation of the affected leg.
- Ribelle ad ogni scuola, ad ogni metodo, ad ogni Accademia, abborrendo tutto ciò che sa di mestiere, di artifizio, si trovò presto solo, senza appoggio, senza maestro, senza consiglieri con un branco di cattivi e d'invidiosi che gli si mettevano fra i piedi ogni qualvolta egli tentava farsi strada e dar prova delle sue attitudini, del suo ingegno. Ma il Veh soli! della bibbia non lo spaventava, anzi in quelle lunghe diuturne veglie in lotta con tutto un sistema che per tanti anni aveva trionfato, con de' forti sostenitori di quello e questi fierissimi oppositori suoi, sentì le sue forze aumentare, il suo ingegno svilupparsi, concepì un nuovo e vasto orizzonte artistico non ancora da altri tentato, e si mise all' opera e ritentò la prova. Dizionario degli Artisti Italiani Viventi: pittori, scultori, e Architetti., by [Angelo de Gubernatis]. Tipe dei Successori Le Monnier, 1889, page 435.
- His admirers have included the Futurists Carlo Carra and Umberto Boccioni, and the modern Milanese sculptors Giacomo Manzu and Marino Marini. No verification
- De Gubernatis, pages 435-436.