Isidre Nonell was born in Barcelona in 1872. From a very early age he showed aptitude for drawing and between 1884 and 1892 he received his firts lessons from artists such as Josep Miraben, Gabriel Martínez Altés and Lluís Graner. During the academic years 1893-1894 and 1894-1895 he attended the “Escola de Belles Arts de Barcelona” ( Fine Arts School of Barcelona) where he met Joaquim Mir, Ricard Canals, Ramón Pichot, Juli Vallmitjana, Adrià Gual and Joaquin Sunyer who were school friends and at the same time they shared the same artistic interests: the landscape painting, interest for the light, and atmospheric effects. Together they went to painting excursions to the outskirts of Barcelona where they practised a half impressionist style, often with warm tones, for this reason they received the name “Saffron Group” or “Sant Martí Group” because this was of the name of the municipilaty next to Barcelona where they used to paint.
In 1894 Isidre Nonell started to work as an illustrator for the newspaper “La Vanguardia”. He continued to work as an illustrator in different magazines and publications until 1904, such as “L’Esquella de la Torratxa”, “Barcelona Cómica”, “Pèl&Ploma” or “Forma”.
In the summer of 1896, Nonell and his friends Ricard Canals and Juli Vallmitjana, travelled to Caldes de Boí. His initial purpose was to work in the Spa that the family of Vallmitjana managed in the town of the Catalan Pirineo, but also to paint and to draw in their leisure time. They enjoyed the beauty of the landscape, however Nonell was impressed by the large quantity of people that suffered from cretin illness, a glandular illness that creates delays in the physical and mental development. Nonell took notes from these underdeveloped and grotesque people. Afterwards in Barcelona and later on in Paris, he developed an entire group of more elaborated works based on them. The Nonell’s stay in Boí signalled the end of a landscape phase and the beginning of a new phase based on the the human figure of the most humble and ostracized people. The large number of drawings that Nonell completed in this period, some of which were made in a very personal and original technique called “fregit” (fried), would show protagonist poor people begging, defenceless older people, gypsies, wounded and repratiated soldiers from the Cuban war with the United States at the end of the XIXth century.
Between 1897 and 1900 Nonell made two trips to Paris, each stay was longer that one and a half years. In these stays he made contact with the most modern of french painting. In several letters sent from the French capital to the art critic Raimón Casellas, he expressed his admiration for the impressionist painters. The influence from them – together from the postimpressionist Van Gogh or Toulousse Lautrec - is clearly stated in his scarce production of these years.
On his return to Barcelona, Nonell started with his nowadays famous group of works of gypsies with an absolutely new language, which was provocative for the public and conservative art critics of his time. Even the critic Raimón Casellas, who previously supported his work, totally rejected this new approach towards the most miserable people in society. However, despite the hostility of the public and art critics, Nonell kept painting gypsies, most of them in deep sad attitude and dejection, and with a very dark group of colors.
Between 1906 and 1907 Nonell’s works shifted towards brighter and lighter colours, at the same time incorporating white race models, in a kind and nicer attitude, which will gradually substitute his melancholic gypsies. In 1908 he worked again as an illustrator for the satirical magazine “Papitu” which was founded this same year by Feliu Elias. He published a total of 42 splendid drawings, some of which he signed with the biblical names of Noe and Josue. These works were very well received by the public, therefore compensating in some way the general indifference against his pictorical work.
In January of 1910 Nonell made a very important individual exhibition in the galery of “Faianç Català” of Barcelona, which was his first big success and the final acknowledgement from the critics and from a very important part of the public. It was a retrospective exhibition where he gathered 130 paintings and additional drawings, made over a decade starting from 1900. From this success he made a theme shift in his career. Without totally leaving the human figure paintings, he started to paint still-lifes, with a very austere composition but with a very rich use of colours.
The 11th of February of 1911, Nonell died at the early age of 38, a victim of typhus.