Giuseppe De Nittis. Elégance moderne

Giuseppe De Nittis. An elegant modernity

Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, from 21 October 2010 to 16 January 2011

1. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Self-portrait, 1883
Pastel - 114 X 88 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

The Petit Palais has progressively made it a specialty to reveal or recall artists who are unknown or forgotten, at least to the general public : just in the last few years, there was the luminous painter Joaquin Sorolla (see article), the highly original sculptor Jean Carriès (see article), the realist Fernand Pelez (see article)… By selecting Guiseppe De Nittis (1846-1884) to open its season in Paris, the Musée de Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris is repairing a lengthy injustice since this is his first exhibition in our country since … 1886. Yet, although De Nittis’ name means almost nothing in France – including art history [1]- (to a lesser degree in Italy [2]), this was not at all the case in the decade following the fall of the Second Empire. A friend of Degas and Manet, often exhibited at the Salon, a participant in the Impressionist adventure at Nadar’s since the start, welcoming Parisian intellectuals and artists to his home (Zola, Daudet, Goncourt, Heredia, Dumas son, Duranty…), he was admired by many critics, from Castagnary the herald of Realism, to Geffroy the first historian of Impressionism, and including Philippe Burty an enthusiast of japonism. Consequently, we might wonder how this artist who claimed “that France is the country I have espoused” [3], whom certain critics considered “a Frenchman, a Parisian thoroughbred” [4], complaining because he hung in the Italian section during the Exposition universelle of 1878, came to disappear from our cultural landscape.

2. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
The Ofantino, 1866
Oil on canvas - 60 X 100 cm
Private collection
Photo : All rights reserved

3. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
On the Banks of the Ofanto, 1867
Oil on canvas - 25 X 110 cm
Florence, Galleria d’arte moderna di Palazzo Pitti
Photo : All rights reserved

His gained his reputation in fact thanks to Paris – as did many other foreign artists then – by means of the Salons where he exhibited as of 1869, arriving from his native Italy after having left the Fine Arts Academy in Naples in 1863 which he considered too beholden to the classical tradition. Along with three fellow students – Cecioni, De Gregorio and Rossano – he founded the Resina School, of a naturalist vein. But his temperament kept him from observing any stylistic discipline : whereas he produced a narrative “pochade” with fuzzy touches of light cutting through the foliage (Rendez-vous in the Portici Woods, Viareggio, Istituto Matteucci) in 1864, two years later he painted a larger format with detailed strokes, sharp colours, in a very classically inspired vein, The Ofantino (ill. 2), a change not yet visible in the panoramic canvases of 1865, no longer depicted in a naturalistic or narrative approach but rather landscapes seen through “their atmospheric aspect” as in Plateau in Apulia. On the Banks of the Ofanto, (ill. 3). In fact, during these years De Nittis focused on capturing and mastering “atmosphere” [5], traveling through Apulia (The Salt Works of Margaret of Savoy, 1864, Milan, priv. coll.) and Campania where he tried out seascapes, looking for sunset effects (Red Sun, 1864-1866, Mario Scaglia coll.) or broad daylight (Seascape, 1866, Barletta [6]), also painting several Studies of Clouds (1868, Barletta) on small wood panels.

4. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
On the Slopes of Vesuvius, 1872
Oil on canvas - 30.5 X 18 cm
Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna
Photo : All rights reserved

During 1867, he interrupted his explorations of these Italian regions to come to Paris where he was immediately taken by the French capital – despite an upsetting arrival [7] – with its gray skies, its urban activity, its surrounding countryside. After returning to Italy for a few months to exhibit in Florence, he was back to Paris in June 1868 : he fell in love with a woman this time, Léontine Gruvelle, the daughter of an “important costume dealer in Paris” who became his model and whom he married the following year, the same year he exhibited at the Salon for the first time presenting two very academic canvases “with costumed figures, Messonier school, a genre I had tried with little conviction” he said of A Visit to the Antique Dealer, (Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art). The young couple moved into a small house in La Jonchère, on the banks of the Seine, between Rueil and Bougival, welcoming Manet, Berthe Morisot, Caillebotte, Pissarro as guests into their home. De Nittis rode through the countryside painting scenes from life, of themes popular at the time, (In Bougival or Under the Parasol, a subject evoking Monet’s canvases, or again The Banks of the Seine at Bougival alluding to the then fashionable mythology of boating). He went to La Grenouillère (Milan, priv. coll.) and produced his own version alongside those of Renoir and Monet. Was it this close friendship – thus a thematic and even stylistic proximity– with those persons whom L’Univers illustré called the “intransigeant impressionists” which drove critics to include him in their group, as the one who “makes impressionism understandable to society” [8] ? This is no doubt an exaggerated perception as illustrated, in a very personal style, in the Posing Session (1869-1870, Milan, priv. coll.) where he represents himself in absentia by the mere presence of a box of colours and brushes.

5. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Gulf of Naples : Sunny Reflections, 1872
Oil on canvas - 39.5 X 31 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

6. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Road from Naples to Brindisi, 1872
Oil on canvas - 27 X 52 cm
Indianapolis, Museum of Art
Photo : Museum of Art d’Indianapolis

7. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
The Sea during a Tempest, 1877
Oil on canvas - 83 X 152 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

But as shadows appeared on the horizon, the war broke out and the couple left France to move back to Italy and here, Giuseppe returned to his country, especially its sharply contrasting skies. It was then he painted a series of small pictures of Vesuvius, capturing it from the plain (Torre Annunziata and Landscape of Vesuvius with Snow, 1872, Vicenza, Fondazione Progetto Marzotto), halfway up or from the top (In the Crater of Vesuvius, id.) or with a striking close-up of the inside of the volcano in tones of ochre and brown depicting the monstrosity which had terrified the ancients, On the Slopes of Vesuvius (ill. 4). This same Vesuvius appears in the distance on a superb canvas where the sea and the sky blend in a chromatic darkness illuminated by the light of an invisible sun, Gulf of Naples : Sunny Reflections, (ill. 5). But he became famous thanks to another canvas produced during this same trip : in an entirely different vein, determinedly realist, it was exhibited at the Parisian Salon of 1872 and earned the praise of the art critic Paul Manz who, like Bergotte in front of Vermeer’s canvas, found his “small area of yellow wall” in a purplish blue shadow of the Road from Naples to Brindisi (ill. 6) : “This perfectly coloured shadow created an event in the modern school, it very much helped the Impressionists” [9].

8. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Place des Pyramides, 1875
Oil on canvas - 92 X 75 cm
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay

9. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Cloudy Sunset, 1876 - 1877
Pastel - 90 X 63 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

Now famous, De Nittis returned to Paris, settled in at avenue du Bois (today avenue Foch), exhibited at the Salon, announced his break with official painting in an open letter to the Giornale artistico while also denouncing the contract tying him to the art dealer Goupil who criticized him for spending more time on “studies” than on marketable canvases where a narration “with figures and costumes” would find its ideal place : thus the reason for the Descent from Vesuvius (1872, Barletta) which he agreed to during his Neapolitan stay. From then on, but without forgetting nature – as shown by a marvelous The Sea during a Tempest (ill. 7) - , he would concentrate on rendering the atmosphere of two cities : Paris where he lived and London which he discovered in 1874 [10]. London is the third of his loves and his “third sky” : here, the Italian blue, the Parisian gray with blue outlines are joined by the London gray in all its variations. In Paris, where he becomes “the true and talented landscapist of the streets”, he alternates urban scenes such as Place des Pyramides (ill. 8) ; The Porte Saint-Denis, 1877, Bari, Pinacoteca Corrado Giaquinto ; Parisian Women on the Place de la Concorde, 1880, Paris, Musée Carnavalet and the views of the Seine (Bridge on the Seine, 1876, Barletta ; Along the Seine, 1876, Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, a watercolour postcard, and then an oil version, in a totally different spirit and style, a harmony of brown and beige held at the Musée d’Orsay. Nor should we forget the Cloudy Sunset (ill. 9), a sublime pastel which Edmond de Goncourt described as follows : “This is the foggy Parisian air, the gray of its pavement, the hazy silhouette of the passer-by”.

10. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
The National Gallery in London 1877
Oil on canvas - 70 X 105 cm
Paris, Petit Palais musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Photo : Petit Palais

11. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Westminster Bridge, 1878
Oil on canvas - 110 X 95 cm
Ravenna, collection particulière
Photo : All rights reserved

In London, he found a patron in the person of a banker who asked him to use his brushes to “photograph” typical scenes and figures (Sunday in London, truer than life with its debonair bobby and its deserted streets [1878, priv. coll.] ; A Match Vendor in the City, 1879, a verismo canvas so real that Banville saw there “London’s terrifying misery in all its hopeless horror” [11]), but also a few of the city’s landmarks, (The National Gallery, (ill. 10) ; Picadilly, 1875, priv. coll., and above all the large format of Westminster Bridge (ill. 11), whose composition is organized in three diagonal zones placing side by side from right to left, clearly outlined figures à la Caillebotte, the Thames and Parliament barely discernible in a Monet-like fog , finally a hesitantly reddish sky worthy of Turner).

12. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
At the Salon, 1883
Oil on canvas - 62.5 X 45 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

13. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
At the Auteil Races : on the Chair, 1883
Oil on canvas - 107 X 57 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

While his paintings continued to gain favor with the public (the market even saw the appearance of many fakes), he gathered the most elite intellectual and artistic circles at his “samedis de l’amitié” [Saturdays among friends] and frequented high society both in the salons (ill. 12) (notably that of Princesse Mathilde – a chance for him to paint interior scenes in both oil and pastel) and at the race track – where he was more attracted by the behavior of those socialites whom he captured in poses full of humour and irony (much like Proust) than by the horses (see especially At the Bois de Boulogne, 1873, Milan, Courtesy Fondazione Enrico Piceni or At the Auteil Races : on the Chair (ill. 13)). De Nittis also adopted the fashion of japonism after meeting Seitei, the master (ill. 14).

14. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
The Kimono orange, 1883-1884
Oil on canvas - 42 X 31 cm
Private collection
Photo : All rights reserved

15. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Snow Effects, 1880
Oil on canvas - 53 X 72 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

16. Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Winter Day, 1882
Pastel - 150 X 89 cm
Barletta, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis
Photo : All rights reserved

Realism, naturalism, impressionism, japonism … : was the “talented” De Nittis, admired by Goncourt, but tossed about by trends and acquaintances, fated to live without ever finding his own style ? There is no doubt that there is a chameleon like character to his painting and we cannot help but think of Courbet when seeing his Sea during a Tempest, Monet in front of Snow Effects (ill. 15), Sargent in the portrait of his wife Winter Day (ill. 16), Degas, Manet… Does this mean we should ignore him ? Certainly not and the current exhibition, superbly staged in an understated setting, well deserves a visit. It provides an interesting counterpoint to the Monet retrospective at the Grand Palais (see article) and allows us to meet a painter who, despite a truncated career, offers a complete survey of the artistic currents in France at that time in his work, thus fully justifying Jules Claretie’s formula [12], adapted from Baudelaire, used in the sub-title of the exhibition [13].

Collectif, Giuseppe De Nittis. La modernité élégante, RMN, 2010, 320 p., 37€, ISBN : 9782759601424.

Visitor information : Paris, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Tel : +33 (0)1 53 43 40 00. Open every day except Monday from 10 am to 6 pm, Thursday until 8 pm. Tickets : 10€ (full price), 7.5 and 5 € (reduced price). Free entrance to the permanent collections.

Daniel Couty, vendredi 17 décembre 2010


[1] Henri Loyrette (dir.), L’Art français. Le XIXe siècle (1819-1905), Flammarion, 2006 : « While we can say this is French art [in the 19th century], it is difficult to determine a definite French school. […] How can we not integrate Van Gogh, to quote the most famous one, in French art, as well as Jongkind, De Nittis, Valloton and so many others ?” (p. 16).

[2] A more extensive retrospective was held in Italy in 2005, first in Rome then Milan. See article, in French.

[3] Notes et Souvenirs du peintre Joseph [sic !] De Nittis, 1895 (text written by his French wife and published in Paris).

[4] Marius Vachon, Les Peintres étrangers à l’Exposition universelle de 1878, 1878.

[5] In Notes et Souvenirs, De Nittis confides : « I know atmosphere well […] I know all the colours, the secrets of the air and the sky in their intimate essence ».

[6] Barletta, De Nittis’ home town, not far from Bari in Apulia, holds almost 150 works thanks to a generous bequest by the artist’s wife constituting the largest museum devoted to De Nittis. The current exhibition was made possible thanks to the active participation of the Pinacoteca De Nittis in Barletta. The word Barletta after the title on a canvas refers to the museum collections.

[7] This story was told by Edmond de Goncourt (Journal, 25 February 1880) : “When getting off the train, he took the omnibus [to a Neapolitan sculptor’s house]. They threw his small trunk and his big box of colours down to him, the box opened and the brushes and colours flew into the stream. He picked them up as well as he could…”.

[8] L’Univers illustré, 18 June 1881.

[9] Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1st July 1872.

[10] The date of De Nittis’ first trip to London is not very clear : the catalogue suggests first 1870 (p. 14) then 1873 or 1874 (p. 41). In any case, he went there several years in a row (until 1881-1882), generally in April-May.

[11] T. de Banville, Le National, 21st June 1879.

[12] Jules Claretie, L’Art et les Artistes français, 1876.

[13] My thanks to Dominique Morel, Curator in chief at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris and co-curator for the exhibition “De Nittis. La Modernité élégante » who allowed me to consult the catalogues at his disposal and who was always available to answer my questions.

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