Sveva Caetani - Archetypal Watercolours

Sveva Caetani
Sveva Caetani


As a junior curator at an art gallery over 20 years ago I initiated and curated a show of magnificent large watercolor paintings by the under-represented Canadian artist Sveva Caetani from Vernon, BC. Canada.


Sveva Caetani's story from emotional repression to self-expression is so extraordinary, it can encourage all of us to express our authentic truth at any stage of life.


"Life became difficult for eighteen-year-old Sveva after the death of her father from cancer in 1934. Her mother Ofelia suffered both physically and mentally from the loss and chose a reclusive life, forcing Sveva to join her. 


Sveva was housebound from 1935 until 1960. It was only after Ofelia’s death that Sveva was free to pursue her own creative interests." 


A True Fairy Tale


Not only would Sveva's mother Ofelia refuse to leave the house, but she forbid Sveva to do so either. Without her husband to cling to, Ofelia tried to hold on to her daughter. Ofelia complained of heart problems, and she told her daughter, “If you leave me, I shall die.” Sveva obeyed her.


She was afraid to do anything that might hurt her mother. She was also afraid of losing her mother’s love. Ofelia was afraid of being left alone. She was afraid Sveva might want to get married or have a career and then move away. A fence was built around the yard, and visitors were turned away. 


Letters to Sveva from friends were kept from her. There was only Miss Juul, Ofelia’s long-time companion, and her mother for company. Sveva spent her lonely days reading and housecleaning. Ofelia became obsessed with cleanliness.


Every day, Sveva washed and ironed the sheets, and she scrubbed the floors. Ofelia even had the curtains, carpets, and lamp shades removed so that there would be fewer places for dust and dirt to hide. In her spare time, Sveva was not allowed to write or paint.


Reading became her link to the outside world, and crates of books were shipped from England. Eventually, when Sveva was close to a nervous breakdown, she was allowed out into the garden. Then, after 16 year of being confined to the property, she was allowed to go into town to do business such as banking. But Miss Juul always went with her, and Sveva had to telephone her mother every half hour. For 25 years, Sveva lived like Rapunzel, trapped in her own tower. 


Large watercolour paintings by Sveva Caetani
Large watercolour paintings by Sveva Caetani


Sveva: Living Happily Ever After


Ofelia died in 1960 when she was 64 years old. Finally, Sveva was free of her obligation to her mother. Sveva was 43, and she felt that her life was just beginning. In her will, Ofelia left the last of her possessions, a house in Italy, to the Catholic Church. There was little Caetani money left for Sveva. This meant that Sveva had to find a job and earn a living for the first time in her life.


Like a spring flower blooming after a long winter, Sveva blossomed in the community. She learned to drive, she joined local clubs, she made many new friends, and she started to teach school.  Sveva took up painting again when she was in her 50s. She had painted as a child and a young woman. However, her mother had discouraged her artistic talents. Ofelia even destroyed some of Sveva’s paintings.


An art teacher at the University of Victoria urged Sveva to start painting once more. Sveva wanted to show the journey of her life in a series of paintings. Perhaps painting these pictures also helped Sveva come to grips with painful memories of her father’s death, her mother’s solitude, and her own confinement.


Sveva began painting her Recapitulation series in 1978. When she finished the series in 1989, there were 56 paintings, some of them six feet tall. The pictures have a dream-like quality, and many are bold and colourful. She used more than fifteen coats of paint to create glowing colours. Sveva dedicated herself to this project. She painted for two or three hours every morning before she left for school.


After supper, she painted late into the night. Some paintings took several months to complete. Near the end, she was working from a wheelchair because she had arthritis, first in her knees and then in her hands. When she could no longer hold a brush, she wrote poems and explanations for each picture. The pictures are now part of the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts in Edmonton.


For the full PDF of this story click HERE.

It is interesting watch Sveva's creative process unfold until the end (56 slides) as I think it illustrates the intuitive process of emotional healing. In this painting series Sveva symbolically releases her inherited family/ancestral pain first and ends in the vibrant color and light of her soul.


Paintings by Sveva Caetani

From the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. See this link for titles and sizes. Paintings photographed by Heidi Thompson. Slide show depicts paintings in the order they were painted.

The Book

In 1993, Heidi Thompson, a Vernon photographer and abstract artist, suggested that Sveva’s Recapitulation series be published in a book. For ten years, Heidi had been photographing Sveva’s paintings as they were completed. Sveva agreed to the project.


However, Sveva did not live to see the book finished. Recapitulation: A Journey by Sveva Caetani was published in 1995. Sveva died in April, 1994. She was 76. She was buried beside her father, her mother, and Miss Juul in the Caetani family Canada, and her cherished home to the city of Vernon.


Note: Heidi's book is no longer in print but you can view all of the paintings above or on the Alberta Foundation for the Arts website here.