by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Outsider Who Documented the World

By Roderick Conway Morris
PADUA 28 February 2013
Revoltella Museum, Trieste
'Return from the Races, 1878.



Giuseppe De Nittis was the only foreign artist to exhibit, on the invitation of Degas, at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but his five paintings were hung in a poor light some days after the event began. He never showed with this group again.

In his semidetached relationship with the Impressionists, De Nittis had much in common with his friends Degas and Manet, but this ambiguous connection with what was to emerge as the leading avant-garde movement of the era has often resulted in his being underestimated.

His death from a stroke in 1884 at the age of 38 and the distribution of his oeuvre among private collections and provincial museums hindered his posthumous international fame. The only public gallery with a substantial number of his works on show is the Pinacoteca De Nittis in Barletta, in southern Italy, remote from well-trodden tourist routes.

But that De Nittis was an original and innovative force and responsible for some of the most evocative images of his times is persuasively demonstrated by 'De Nittis,' an exhibition of 118 of his works (many from private collections), curated by Emanuela Angiuli and Fernando Mazzocca.

Born in Barletta in 1846 De Nittis was orphaned at the age of 10. When he moved with his older brothers to Naples in 1861, against their strong opposition he enrolled in the Fine Arts Institute. But his impatience with the teaching and his rebelliousness led to his expulsion two years later. From then on, as he later recalled, 'I became my own sole master.' He devoted much of his time to plein-air painting, achieving a precocious mastery in capturing landscape vistas and cloudscapes, as revealed in examples of his teenage works in the first room of the show.

In 1867 he scraped together enough money to make a trip to Paris and managed to sell some works to the prominent dealer Adolph Goupil. On returning to Italy, he exhibited the virtuoso, highly atmospheric 'Crossing the Apennines.' This painting both enthused leading exponents of the country's home-grown, proto-Impressionist group, the Macchiaioli (literally, 'blotchers' or 'daubers') and so impressed King Victor Emmanuel II that he bought it for the Capodimonte Gallery in Naples (from which it is on loan here).

This unlikely double hit when De Nittis both won the approval of members of the avant-garde and attracted an establishment buyer of art could be seen as emblematic of what was to occur often in the artist's career. And De Nittis was to pay the price, since his ability to find buyers for his work led avant-garde artists in both France and his home country to denigrate his paintings as commercial and superficial.

The next stage of De Nittis's career, although relatively brief, was certainly held against him by his Italian confrères: Moving to Paris in 1868, he began to supply Goupil with rococo genre costume scenes for which the dealer could find a ready market. But with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, De Nittis left Paris with his new wife, Léontine, and returned to Italy.

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1872 offered the artist an unusual opportunity to exercise his plein-air skills in a series of oil sketches from the slopes of the volcano. The second room of the show contains more than 20 of these, which show both his bold handling of color and a personally developed form of Impressionism. Also evident in some viewpoints is the influence of the Japanese art of which De Nittis was becoming an admirer and collector. Two Vesuvius sketches were among the several works by Nittis in Degas's collection auctioned after the French painter's death in 1917.

Back in Paris again in 1872, De Nittis's work took a new direction as he became a pioneering chronicler of the city's streets, boulevards, squares and parks. His lively, realist images were sketched en plein air but finished in the studio. Some of the best of these make up the third section of the exhibition. They were acclaimed by the critics, among them Philippe Burty, an early champion of realism and Impressionism, who declared that De Nittis 'knows more about Paris than the Parisians themselves.'

At home the artist and his wife Léontine came to preside over one of the city's most animated salons. The reception rooms were adorned with pictures by Corot, Degas, Manet, Monet and Japanese art works. Apart from many artists, visitors to the salon were to include Edmond Goncourt, Duranty, Dumas fils, Huysmans, Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, the Princesse Matilde Bonaparte and Zola. The artist was as proud of his cooking as he was of his painting, and one habitué described him appearing with a enormous dish of 'lasagne alla Barlettana' to cries of 'Viva De Nittis!'

From 1874, De Nittis made annual trips to London, where he recorded the streets of the city, the West End and Hyde Park and their comings and goings. Outstanding among these works were those of the road and railroad bridges on the Thames, executed in a markedly Impressionist style. Of the 10 London pictures on show here, five were commissioned by the English banker Kaye Knowles, who became an avid collector of De Nittis's work, commissioning 10 new paintings by him. The banker's intention was to leave all his De Nittis canvases to the National Gallery, which would have kept alive the memory of the artist in Britain, but they were dispersed by his heirs and are now almost all in private collections abroad.

The Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 was a triumphant moment for De Nittis. A retrospective of 12 of his pictures won him a gold medal and the Légion d'honneur. A critic deplored that De Nittis was shown in the Italian, not French section, writing: 'He is French, a thoroughbred Parisian.' Ironically, seven of these were of London.

But one of the 12, 'The Return from the Races,' seems to encapsulate the whole of fashionable Parisian society of that epoch. Using a daring posterlike format, it depicts an assured and alluring young woman about town, veiled, dressed in black, and leading a docile mastiff, the sexually suggestive charge of the piece completed by the miniature, fetishistic whip in her left hand.

In the last years before his premature death, De Nittis's art continued to develop vigorously and fruitfully, particularly in the field of pastels, which he did a great deal to revive as a medium for contemporary art and portraiture. They were often on a large scale, and as the final section of the exhibition reveals, wonderfully spontaneous and expressive in his hands. They also proved ideal for his experiments in rendering interior evening scenes illuminated by artificial lighting, such as those he captured in 1883 in Princesse Matilde's crowded salon.

Two of his last works, both here, are among his finest and fully represent the broadness of his vision. 'The Gooseherd,' a brooding landscape executed on his last trip to Naples, is of a poor peasant woman resting by a muddy track beneath a thunderous, rain-laden sky.

The other, 'Breakfast in the Garden,' is a beautifully realized record of Léontine and their young son Jacques, at a shady table covered with a white cloth by a sun-dappled lawn, the artist's own place prophetically empty, his coffee cup and glass drained.

De Nittis. Palazzo Zabarella, Padua, Italy. Through May 26.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024