Luigi Marie Sotta
Italian painter Luigi Marie Sotta, a skilled and significant artist well versed in French academic practice, worked for at least two seasons in New Orleans.
More than a century after his death, Luigi Maria Sotta, an Italian-born itinerant portraitist who worked in New Orleans, remains obscure in Louisiana. Several authors identify him as a woman, based on a misinterpretation of his middle name. Dictionaries identify him simply as L. Sotta. Historian Herman Seebold wrote that Sotta was principally a sculptor, for which there is no evidence, and that he was “German in style but Italian in name.” Sotta, like his contemporaries Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp and Adolph Rinck, was a skilled and significant artist well versed in French academic practice.
Sotta was born in 1807 to a family of artists in Malesco, an Italian city a few miles from the Swiss border. His father, Francesco Maria Sotta, had trained in the studio of Carlo Giuseppe Borgnis in Craveggia, in a region known as Valle Vigezzo, or Painter’s Valley. Caught up in revolutionary fervor, Francesco joined the effort and moved to France in 1792. Luigi’s brothers, Gioacchino (also Joachim) Luigi Sotta and Carlo Giuseppe, were also respected painters. All were cited in their day for the precision and accuracy of their execution.
Luigi Maria left Italy in 1829 to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France, with Louis Hersent, a pupil of Jean Baptiste Baron Regnault and favorite of King Louis XVIII. Sotta followed Hersent’s crisp style, exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1833 and 1838. He also painted a copy of a portrait of Francois de Scepeaux by Louis-Philippe to be displayed at the Palace of Versailles. Sotta spent three years working in St. Petersburg, Russia, before traveling to New Orleans in 1840, where he worked for at least two seasons.
Sotta arrived with a letter of introduction from the Vicar General of Nantes, where his brother, Carlo, was a professor. The letter is addressed to Bishop Joseph Flaget in Bardstown, Kentucky. The vicar wrote that Sotta was “remarkable himself by the greatest religious and social qualities and [exhibits] the same qualities in his paintings.” A March 1840 notice in the Louisiana Courier spared little in praising Sotta’s paintings, probably near the end of his first residency. Citing the portrait of “Mr. L. Pilié,” which “together has a resemblance of greatest exactitude, a luminous color, an expression that is perfectly natural,” the long newspaper notice also stated that Sotta offered numerous copies of Old Master paintings, including compositions by Titian, Correggio, and Van Dyck. Sotta would return to the city in 1841, and he may have been in New Orleans as late as 1844. Following this, he spent a year in Rome before returning to Italy, eventually taking the place of Borgnis’s son as professor of painting in Craveggia. Sotta died in Italy in 1882.
To contemporary eyes, Sotta’s paintings may appear mechanical, mapping features with an unsparing eye. The even lighting reveals a highly detailed likeness, precise and accurate in individual detail, but with a verism that does not extend to flattery. Like Vaudechamp’s portraits of mature women, Sotta’s subjects often appear as corpulent or rail thin, perhaps to emphasize the honesty of self-presentation. Sotta was perhaps most adept at capturing the traces of old age upon the countenance, notably his portrait of Mrs. Leonard Wiltz.