Antonio Cirino was born in Italy in 1888, immigrated to Providence at age two and was raised among the bustle of Atwells Ave, the center of business and culture for Providence’s Italian population in the early 20th century. A colorful and confident personality, he amused many and enraged others in his lifetime. In 2008 it is his iconic repertoire of paintings, be it the woods of Lincoln, Rhode Island, the little church spire in East Providence or the fisherman in their picturesque old wooden boats in Rockport, that solidify his legacy as a painter.
Cirino integrated readily into the Rhode Island community. In a 1980 article he noted,
”Nota Bene! Though I am a native of Serino, Italy, Province of Avellino, I bear the tradmark, ‘Made in the U.S.A.’, because of the influence that public education had on me, kneading me for the life to come.”
The artist attended Providence Technical School, graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1909 and received a Bachelor’s of Science Degree from Columbia Teachers College in 1912. Then the young man went directly to the Rhode Island School of Design to teach jewelry design commencing a thirty-five year teaching career. He co-authored a significant textbook, Jewelry Making and Design with A.F. Rose. While the number of Italian Americans swelled in Providence from 18,014 in 1894 to 42,044 in 1920, Cirino selected an uncommon path compared to fellow immigrants from his generation. He distinguished himself with a college degree and teaching position in higher education.
Cirino, however, always had a driving passion for painting and in the 1920’s began to summer in Rockport where he became one of the founding members of the Rockport Art Association. Rockport became not only an important summer refuge for the artist but a location where he would produce his most important canvases. Critical acclaim would follow along with acceptance into the Salmagundi Club in New York City in 1926 and the Providence Art Club.
His fluid painting technique showed a keen understanding of composition and skillful craftsmanship in manipulating oil pigments, especially in the fluttering and lively effects of light reflecting off water. A keen student of nature, Cirino painted outdoors for his entire artistic career. He was a kindred spirit to the Impressionists and focused on his personal interpretation of the subject. In 1949 the New York Times wrote of one of his paintings, Mooring Place “one of the more honest and sensitive examples of this genre.”
Throughout his life Cirino not only refined his painting craft but also understood that to insure his legacy he needed to actively promote his work and document his achievements. He did this by winning prizes in juried exhibitions, earning favorable critical reviews and placing his work in important collections. He dedicated much of his energy to achieving these goals and received over seventy- nine prizes for his paintings including the gold Medal of Honor by the Rockport Art Association and the Hope Show prize from the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio. His work is included in numerous collections such as the RISD Museum of Art, Dayton Art Institute and National Academy of Design. As if these accolades were not enough, he assembled his own account of his successful art career in three detailed volumes, giving great insight into his perceptions as a painter. In the opening pages of his third and final volume of 1981 he reflected,
This diminutive figure, with his imposing personality started off in the Federal Hill neighborhood teeming with vendors selling their goods in push carts and the sounds of live chickens and rabbits in wooden cages and went on to achieve great success in the world of art. Upon his death he left the majority of his paintings to the Salmagundi Club in New York City and the Rockport Art Association, two institutions he felt critical to his growth and success as an artist. In addition, he established the Antonio Cirino Memorial Fund at The Rhode Island Foundation to provide scholarships for those pursuing graduate degrees to teach art.
Three paintings by Antonio Cirino are included in the Bert Gallery exhibition Struggle, Strength and Dignity. The artist is a fine example of how Italian Americans from Rhode Island journeyed beyond the societal mores of the day establishing successful painting careers in the 20th century.