Lionello Arduino Balestrieri was born in Cetona (SI) on 12 September 1872, into a family with a very modest economic situation, to Torello Balestrieri, a mason from Cetona, and Agnese Bassi, from Santa Fiora.
In 1886 the Balestrieri family moved to Rome and Lionello, now fourteen, enrolled at the Institute of Fine Arts: his passion for art was already strong enough to push him towards this choice, despite his father’s differing opinion. The following year the family moved to Naples, and Lionello enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1891 he worked for a short period in Palermo, for the preparation of the National Exposition, but by 1892 he had already gone back to the Academy, where Domenico Morelli had returned to teaching: the master’s influence was for a long time fundamental in forming and developing his artistic personality. In Naples he also met Filippo Palizzi and Gioacchino Toma.
Perhaps to follow a new love, more likely to try his luck as an artist in the great European capital, like many other artists of his time, in 1894 Lionello moved to Paris, where he came into contact with the photographer and publisher of art photographs Eduardo Fiorillo and with the illustrator Osvaldo Tofani. He soon began to collaborate with the latter, producing numerous illustrations for highly successful feuilletons in fin-de-siècle Paris, which saw him living as a young bohemian with some fellow students and his inseparable friend, the violinist Giuseppe Vannicola.
In 1896, at the Salon des artistes français, the exhibition of the painting En attendant la gloire, inspired by a bohemian night, drew the Parisian critics’ attention to the young Italian artist who obtained real-life inspiration from faces, environments and situations, preferring poorly lit places, generally attics and ateliers with dim artificial light, twilight or night scenes, collected and silent atmospheres with a still strongly romantic flavour, whose evocative contents are accentuated by the effects of chiaroscuro.
In 1900, after strenuous and agonising work, he exhibited his portrait of Beethoven at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where he won the gold medal in the Italian section. The success of Beethoven was enormous: reproduced in photography – something still rare at that time – the painting was known and admired throughout Europe and even in America. After that Balestrieri became known to all, against his will, as “the painter of music”, a label that haunted him heavily in later years and tarnished the merits of his other notable works in the eyes of international critics.
In 1901 Beethoven was sent to Venice at the Biennale, and then purchased by the Revoltella Museum in Trieste, where it is still preserved. Thanks to the sale of Beethoven, Balestrieri and his family made a trip to Italy, first to Cetona, then to Naples, where he visited his beloved teacher Domenico Morelli, now dying, a scene he portrayed in the painting The Last Hours of Domenico Morelli. In Naples he met Salvatore di Giacomo, until then contacted only through correspondence, with whom he formed a lasting friendship and a true artistic partnership.
Driven by the desire to execute faithful copies of his paintings himself, rather than entrusting this task to the publishers who acquired the rights, Balestrieri worked ever more assiduously as an engraver, producing interesting drypoints, aquatints and etchings that portray moments of Parisian life, romantic scenes, landscapes and works with musical subjects.
Between 1901 and 1914 he was appointed President of the Società Artisti Italiani in Paris, and exhibited repeatedly at the Salon des Artistes Français, the Venice Biennale, the Salon de la Gravure en Couleur at the Georges Petit Gallery in Rue de Sèze in Paris, at the Promotrice of Naples, at the Musée du Luxembourg, and participated in the Salon Triennal de Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the VI International Art Exhibition in Barcelona. Over time his painting changed: in 1911 he embarked on a journey to Brittany, thanks to which he came into contact with works from the Pont-Aven school, whose influence is perhaps found in the brightening of his palette; the painter’s works became clear, airy, bright. Leaving aside the musical subjects, he became a lively chronicler of Parisian life, with works that stylistically remain linked to Neapolitan realism. The outbreak of war brought Balestrieri back to Italy, to Naples, where he was commissioned to direct the Museum of Industrial Art and then the Institute of Industrial Art, as Domenico Morelli had done in his time. At first he accepted the task with little enthusiasm, but was soon heavily involved in the school’s organisational and financial problems, so much so that he proposed radical reforms for teaching art and practical disciplines, as well as the Neapolitan artistic environment: he openly clashed with various institutional exponents and with the staff of the institute itself to affirm the principles of the impossibility of hierarchising the products of art, and the need to produce objects in step with the evolution of aesthetic taste that was taking place in the new century.
After the war Balestrieri, who had first met Marinetti at the Futurist Exhibition held at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris in 1912, began to attend Futurist circles assiduously. In the twenties and thirties he took part in numerous attempts to institutionalise the role of artists by creating trade unions, associations and corporations, mostly destined to fail within a short time of their foundation. In 1919, in fact, he resigned from the 23rd Post-War Commission for arts teaching reform, deeply disappointed by the climate of immobility and the lack of initiative from his colleagues in tackling the problems that the Commission should have solved.
In the 1920s, after a period of abandoning his brushes, he started exhibiting again at the Venice Biennale, spent time with Nomellini and Prampolini in Capri, and began producing Futurist works, no more than a dozen in total. In 1925 Balestrieri was appointed Secretary of the Fine Arts Union of Naples and held a major anthology exhibition of all his activity at the Pesaro Gallery in Milan, with a catalogue presented by Salvatore di Giacomo.
In 1928 he was appointed Secretary of the Southern Artists Union and became part of the Ostinati group in Naples: the departure from Futurism thus seemed definitive, given that this group of artists claimed to be inspired by the values of the southern naturalistic tradition from the seventeenth century to the School of Posillipo.
In the 1930s he participated in exhibitions organised by the Neapolitan Union, until in 1937 he retired from directing the Institute of Industrial Art and, after the death of his wife Giuditta in 1940 and the first bombing of Naples in 1941, Balestrieri returned to his native Cetona, where he continued to paint mostly landscapes and views.
In the 1940s and 1950s he gave various solo exhibitions in Florence, in Montecatini, Chianciano, S. Gimignano. On 28 October 1958 he died at his home in Cetona.