He was born in Galatina, and orphaned as a young child. Although he received drawing lessons at the poorhouse in Giovinazzo, he never attended a formal art school and was entirely self-taught. From 1854 to 1855, he worked as an ornamental painter in Naples. In 1857, he was suspected of being an Anti-Bourbon conspirator and was exiled to Piedimonte d'Alife. While there, he first took up painting seriously, producing a portrait of the Duke of Laurenzana and some still lifes.
After 1859, he took part in revolutionary activities, fighting with Garibaldi in 1860. He held several exhibition in Naples (1861-62) and Florence (1863), then retired from public life and nothing is known of his work for a decade. Apparently, he taught drawing in municipal schools to support himself. He began exhibiting again in 1874.
He became known for teaching design. He became professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at Naples, honorary professor of the Accademia Ligustica and Director of the School of Applied Design. He was named a knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy.
He published collections of designs for the manufacture of lace, which was awarded silver medal at the Esposizione Generale Italiana of Turin in 1884. He also published a text of elementary design, which includes a collection of plants and of drawings in twenty plates. Toma also published a short autobiographical book, entitled Memories of an orphan (Ricordi di un orfano). He died in Naples.
He painted a large canvas on the Eruption of Vesuvius, also called A Rain of Ashes (La pioggia di cenere di Vesuvio)( displayed at Turin Exhibition and donated to Academy of Florence), that documents a tradition that locals from the areas at the foot of the volcano, during minor eruptions, would parade an icon of Saint Januarius and plead in prayer to be spared greater harm from an eruption. He also painted La confessione. Angelo de Gubernatis quotes a critic, remarking on the latter painting, who called Toma a painter of
- "...scenes of sacristy, convents, monks, schools, of scenes where the penumbra of the church choir enlivened by flashes of red light from candles and lamps; he is a master at gathering the ecclesiastical countenance in people and things, and of us getting us to gather the sense of the sacred place which spreads with the smell of incense and light governed by the large hanging lamps."
While both works depict folk religious fervor, they highlight some of the more primitive and superstitious elements.
Among other major works include Man Tortured by Inquisition, exhibited at Paris; Clemente VII che nasconde le gioie del Vaticano, exhibited at the Promotrice of Naples; La guardia alla rota dei trovatelli, bought by the Ministry of Public Education; Le orfane, awarded in Naples; La messa in casa, acquired by the City of Naples; l'onomastico della maestra, donated to the Academy of Naples.
His master work Luisa Sanfelice in carcere (Luisa Sanfelice in prison) is located in the collection of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, reproduced in the Illustrazione Italiana. This work depicts the former aristocrat in her jail cell in Castel Sant’Elmo, stitching a dress for the child she was expecting. Her decapitation was carried out by order of the restored Bourbon king for supporting the Parthenopean Republic of 1799.
- Brief biography from the Enciclopedia Italiana @ Treccani.
- Dizionario degli Artisti Italiani Viventi: pittori, scultori, e Architetti., by Angelo de Gubernatis. Tipe dei Successori Le Monnier, 1889, page .
- La pioggia di cenere di Vesuvio is on display at Palazzo Pitti's Florentine Museum of Modern Art.
- Luisa Sanfelice in Carcere
Media related to Gioacchino Toma at Wikimedia Commons