An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
November 12, 2022–February 12, 2023
Reviewed by Ed Voves
The Impressionist movement was a brief moment, at least in terms of the group presentations of the "new painting." In just over a decade, 1874-1886, eight exhibitions of Impressionist painting were held.
Most of the Impressionist painters, by contrast, were remarkably long-lived. Degas lived to 1917, eighty-three years at his passing. Monet reached the age of eighty-six, just managing to complete his series of water-lily "Grand Decoration" in 1926. Renoir, though crippled by arthritis, continued to paint until he died in 1919, aged seventy-eight.
Giuseppe De Nittis was not so fortunate. De Nittis, a brilliant artist in landscape and genre paintings, was struck-down by a massive stroke in 1884. He was just thirty-eight.
The tragic brevity of De Nittis' life is one factor why he is so little known. But there is another reason. De Nittis, born in the Puglia region of southern Italy, lived and worked in an era when contemporary Italian visual art was little regarded. Paris, not Rome or Florence, was the capital of the art world during the 1800's. Cultural historians, intent on charting the course of Modernism, seldom focus on the contributions of Italian artists until the rise of Futurismo, just before World War I.
The Phillips Collection, in Washington D.C., is mounting an exhibition which is finally giving Giuseppe De Nittis his due. It is a splendid exhibit, with 73 works of art on view, 32 paintings coming from the museum in Barletta, Italy dedicated to his oeuvre, the Pinacoteca De Nittis.
Also on display in the Phillips exhibition are several major paintings and prints by Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet and Gustave Caillebotte. These leading French Impressionists befriended De Nittis and occasionally worked alongside him during his all too-brief career.
An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis is on view at the Phillips Collection until mid-February 2023, and will not be traveling to any other American museums. There is a note of urgency for art lovers to visit the Phillips soon. Exhibitions of Italian art from the 1800's are rare events and another opportunity to view De Nittis' paintings in the U.S. is not likely to happen again for some time.
Giuseppe De Nittis was born in 1846 in Barletta, located in the remote region of Puglia, at the "heel" of Italy on the Adriatic coast. De Nittis showed precocious talent in art, which his parents encouraged. The timing for starting a career in the Italian art world, however, was not propitious.
"Italy" as a nation did not exist. The southern part of the boot-shaped peninsula was ruled by the Bourbon dynasty, while the Hapsburg rulers of Austria-Hungary dominated the north. After a long struggle beginning in 1848, Italian independence and political unity, powered by the enterprise known as the Risorgimento, was achieved in 1871.
Giuseppe De Nittis, The Road from Naples to Brindisi, 1872As Italy's unification loomed, De Nittis reached the age of twenty-one in 1867. Unity, however, did not equate to economic vitality or to a new Italian Renaissance in the arts. Italy was and remained a poor country, especially in the southern provinces like Puglia.
By all accounts, the young De Nittis was a headstrong rebel. He was dismissed from the art academy in Naples in 1863 for insubordination. Although there was a visionary group of young artists in Florence, the Macchiaioli, De Nittis did not join their ranks. When the time came to decide where he should base his artistic career, De Nittis made the fateful choice to leave Italy and make his way to Paris.
There really was no other place for De Nittis but Paris, the summit of the art world. Supremely talented in drawing and oil painting, De Nittis was also interested in printmaking, which he soon mastered and later became very proficient in pastel. Most importantly, De Nittis was dedicated to working en plein air, sketching and painting in all weathers. Nature was his academy.
"Nature I am so close to her ...," De Nittis wrote in a tone of almost religious rapture. "I know the atmosphere well, I know all the colors, all the secrets of the air and the sky in their intimate nature. Oh, the sky! I have painted so many pictures! Skies, skies only, and beautiful clouds."
Along with being a gifted artist and student of nature, De Nittis was gregarious and generous, just the kind of companion-in-art to be embraced by Manet and Degas. These are the traits celebrated in the Phillips exhibition. Yet, it must be emphasized that De Nittis was a complicated individual, a revolutionary at heart, but also an ambitious, career-savvy young man.
Initially, on reaching Paris, De Nittis showed particular interest in the art of influential genre painters like Ernest Messonier. De Nittis worked as Messonier's studio assistant while he found his bearings in France. He aso signed a contract with the art firm, Goupil, who marketed Messonier's paintings.
Depictions of Le Beau Monde, Napoleonic battle scenes and bucholic landscapes paid very well indeed. Acceptable works like these also provided access to the French government-sponsored Salon. De Nittis was determined to gain entrance to the Salon. And in a remarkably short time, he succeeded.
Also of note in Return from the Races is a feature which appears in a number of De Nittis' paintings. This is his clever way of balancing the activity of the human cast of characters in the picture, grouped for the most part in one sector of the canvas (often a corner), with a broad expanse of landscape.
This "signature" element on De Nittis' landscapes is most memorably stated in a very early work, The Train Passes. This eye-catching, unconventional oil painting dominates the gallery where it is displayed.
Painted in 1869, The Train Passes is powerful work which distills the conflicting concerns of nineteenth century culture - the resolute belief in progress and disturbing thoughts over the threat posed by technology to human life - into a bold visual statement.
The train dominates the picture, yet is almost beyond our view, leaving a vast plume of acrid smoke in its wake. Two peasant women are hunched in the lower left-hand corner, working in the fields as human beings had done for millennia. Yet, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the baleful effects of the machine age have been added to the grinding physical toll of traditional labor.
The disturbing implications of The Train Passes make it a relevant work a century and a half after it was painted. Yet, it remained unsold during De Nittis' lifetime. It was donated by his widow to the municipal government of his hometown, Barletta, and is now displayed in the Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis.
Pictures of thorough-bred steeds, jockeys and well-dressed spectators were much more popular with wealthy patrons and De Nittis painted his share of horse racing paintings. This was, of course, a subject beloved by Manet and Degas. The Phillips exhibit devotes an entire gallery to the paintings of the races at Longchamp and Auteuil with major works in this theme by Manet, Degas and De Nittis.
De Nittis' racing paintings more than hold their own in competition with the more widely-known works by the two French painters. I was particularly impressed by The Races at Auteuil, Paris ─ On the Chair, 1883. It is a work of great charm and human warmth, as well sly social commentary on the hauteur of the impeccably-clad gentleman, with his monocle and swagger cane.
Of the rising generation of French artists, Manet appears to have been the first to acknowledge De Nittis as a friend and colleague. An important painting by Manet, on loan from the Shelburne Museum, likely confirms his early embrace of De Nittis.
Manet's In the Garden, painted in 1870, shows a beautiful young woman posing with a baby and a lounging man, whose facial features are difficult to discern. Some art scholars have identified the woman as Edma Morisot, artist/sister to Berthe Morisot. But the resemblance really does not match and the fact that De Nittis owned and cherished this work calls this identification into question.
De Nittis married a lovely, vivacious French woman, Léontin Gruvelle in 1869. The features of the woman in In the Garden more closely resemble Léontin than Edma Morisot. Léontin gave birth to a baby girl, who died soon after in 1870. Manet's painting most likely represents the De Nittis family, or at least uses them as models for a family group, before the sad passing of their infant daughter.
Exact identification aside, Manet's In the Garden shows that De Nittis was moving away from the Messonier orbit into that of the dynamic painters who would launch the Impressionist movement in 1874. De Nittis and Degas became very close friends, and Gustav Cailbotte would stand as godfather for the De Nittis' second (and healthy) child, Jacques.
De Nittis' new friendships created problems for him however - quite significant ones in fact.
In 1872, De Nittis, with the encouragement of the Adolphe Goupil, returned to Italy to record a new volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. De Nittis did daily drawings and oil sketches for two versions of the spectacular event. These brilliantly recorded the effect on the atmosphere of the molten ash projected upward from the inner recesses of the volcano. On one of the canvases, De Nittis also depicted a group of onlookers scurrying for safety as a huge black cloud of ash shrouds the sky above them.
De Nittis's painting was refused by Goupil. It was too naturalistic, too experimental for a conservative art dealer like Goupil, who no doubt did not want potential customers to feel the least bit threatened.
The Vesuvius paintings should have been "break-out" works, placing De Nittis in the first rank of contemporary painters. Instead, De Nittis faced the cross-roads of his career. Soon after Goupil rejected the Vesuvius picture, Monet, Renoir and Degas began planning what would become the first Impressionist exhibition. Should De Nittis join the new movement or continue to paint safe, picturesque genre scenes for Goupil?
Degas was enthusiastic for De Nittis to join. Others - Monet and Renoir - resisted including the foreign-born painter in the group exhibition. Eventually, at Degas' insistence, De Nittis was accepted - grudgingly. Five works by De Nittis were included in the 1874 Impressionist Salon but were poorly hung and none sold.
De Nittis parted company with the Impressionists and did not submit any works for the follow-up exhibitions. Even during the 1881 show, chiefly managed by Degas, De Nittis held aloof.
De Nittis and Degas remained on close personal terms, however. De Nittis joined with Degas and his eccentric associate, Ludovic Napoleon Lepic (1839-1899) for innovative printing efforts. The Phillips exhibition devotes a small gallery to their experiments in prints, etchings, monoprints and monotypes. This is a fascinating "sideshow" to the emphasis on painting in the rest of the exhibit, but one which art lovers, especially those who recall MOMA's 2016 A Strange New Beauty exhibition of Degas's prints, will appreciate.
The brief duration of De Nittis' affiliation with the Impressionists calls into question how much of an Impressionist he actually was. Limiting his involvement with the group was hardly a misfortune, however, as he was absorbed with many projects. Among these were new ventures into painting urban views of Paris and London.
In the case of Paris, he recorded the efforts at rebuilding the "City of Light" after the German siege of 1870 and the destructive turmoil of the Commune the following year. The French government took notice and awarded De Nittis the Légion d’honneur in 1878.
De Nittis made annual visits to London during which he combined genre painting with evocative study of the physical environment. London was a good place to record the "Two Nations" of Victorian Britain, self-assured members of the "upper crust" sharing the sidewalk in front of the National Gallery with beggars and "sandwich men" with their street advertisements.
Increasingly, De Nittis focused his attention on the River Thames, rather than London's busy streets. The fogs and mists of the Thames contrasted dramatically with the Gothic Revival architecture of the Houses of Parliament. Here on the Victoria Embankment or the Westminster Bridge, De Nittis could observe London folk walking and working alongside the river and, in a real sense, living with the flow of the Thames, the enduring spirit of London.
When De Nittis delivered one of his London paintings to Goupil during the summer of 1875, one of the employees in the gallery wrote,
A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening and know what it looks like when the sun's setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what it's like early in the morning, and in the winter with snow and fog.
Vincent van Gogh wrote these lines to his brother, Theo, adding, "When I saw this painting, I feel how much I love London."
That is exactly the sentiment that I felt when I viewed De Nittis' 1878 Study of Westminster Bridge at the Phillips exhibition. Unlike The National Gallery and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (London), also painted the same year, there is not a person to be seen in the study of the bridge. But you could never say that not a "soul is stirring."
That is exactly what we see here, the soul of a great city is stirring. Westminster Bridge reaches out to us from the picture plane, bidding us join the countless souls who come together bringing the city to life each day.
That willingness to embrace life and empathize with our fellow human beings was the secret to De Nettis' life and work. But a zest for living only goes so far. De Nettis drove himself at a literally killing pace to keep up with the relentless pace of painting, printmaking, travel and entertaining. The effect of his plein air work exerted a particular strain on his health, as he commented to his friend, the art critic, Edmund de Goncourt.
On August 21, 1884, De Nittis suffered a massive stroke and died. On his easel was an uncompleted self-portrait, which certainly shows that De Nittis' masterful touch was reaching toward a new high point of achievement.
The self-portrait does not appear in the Phillips exhibition but De Nettis' valedictory Breakfast in the Garden is on view. It is, to use a much abused adjective, a "stunning" work of art.
Such is the resonance of Breakfast in the Garden, that it is impossible to deny that De Nittis sealed a part of his soul into this painting.
Léontin, and their son, Jacques, watch a gaggle of ducks approach the table for a scrap of brioche. De Nettis has pushed back his chair, drained his cup of coffee and placed his napkin next to a vase of flowers. He is ready to go to work - but in reality he is departing on the next, the ultimate stage of his life's journey.
We know neither the day nor the hour.
For Giuseppe De Nittis, his "day" ended much too soon. But before his "hour" had come, De Nittis created a body of work, art suffused with the joy of life and a sense of communion with his fellow human beings, still palpable after all the years since his passing.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.
Introductory image: Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Gallery view of An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. showing De Nittis' Breakfast in the Garden.
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Gallery view of An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis at the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Unknown Photographer, Giuseppe De Nittis, 1875. it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_De_Nittis
Giuseppe De Nittis, The Road from Naples to Brindisi (formerly known as The Road from Brindisi to Barletta),1872. Oil on canvas: 29.5 x 54.3 cm. Anonymous loan to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Giuseppe De Nittis' Approaching Storm, ca. 1869. Oil on canvas: 57.5 x 91 cm. Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Barletta.
Giuseppe De Nittis (Italian, 1846-1884) Return from the Races, 1875. Oil on canvas: 58.1 x 114.6 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of John G. Johnson for the W. P. Wilstach Collection, 1906
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Gallery view of An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis, showing De Nittis' The Train Passes, 1869.
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Detail of Giuseppe De Nittis' The Train Passes, 1869. Oil on canvas: 76.5 x 130.5 cm. Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Barletta, Italy.
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Giuseppe De Nittis' The Races at Auteuil, Paris ─ On the Chair, 1883. Oil on canvas: 107 x 55.5 cm. Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Barletta, Italy.
Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883) In the Garden, 1870. Oil on canvas: 44.5 x 54 cm. Collection of Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont. Gift of Dunbar W. and Electra Webb Bostwick, 1981-82
Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Giuseppe De Nittis' Figure of a Woman (Léontine), 1880. Oil on canvas: 73 x 39 cm. Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Barletta.