De Nittis: Painter of Modern Life

Giuseppe De Nittis is a greatly underrated painter. or at least he has been for quite some time, and he’s now considered one of the greatest Italian artists of the 19th century. One of the reasons that saw him shunned by intellectuals had to not so much with his technique but with his subjects, for […]

Giuseppe De Nittis is a greatly underrated painter. or at least he has been for quite some time, and he’s now considered one of the greatest Italian artists of the 19th century. One of the reasons that saw him shunned by intellectuals had to not so much with his technique but with his subjects, for when he didn’t paint the fashion of the Belle Epoque, he was courting verism.

The fourth son of a middle-class family, his childhood was marked by the political imprisonment of his father, who took his own life when Giuseppe was still a child. Growing up with his grandparents, he enrolled in the Naples Academy of Fine Arts and got himself expelled for rowdy behaviour two years later. A man after my own heart.

He approached the Macchiaioli current while In Florence in 1866 and moved to Paris in 1867.
Alongside Boldini, one of my favorites, De Nittis became among the foremost Italian artists in the French capital, holding his own voice among luminaries such as Manet, Degas, and the Impressionists. After a false start at the Salon, he gained great success in 1872 with his landscape scene A Road from Brindisi to Barletta (Una strada da Brindisi a Barletta).

A road from Brindisi to Barletta

His second success in 1874 would complement this one with the second of his favorite subjects: Parisian ladies. The painting was titled Such cold! (Che freddo!), and it’s a vibrant scene with mood, movement, the weather, and the ladies are represented with such grace that it’s unsurprising this earned him the title of “peintre des Parisiennes”, painter of Parisian women.

Such cold!

His fame was consecrated during the 1874 exhibition, held in the studio of the photographer Nadar and commonly referred to as the birth of Impressionism.
He exhibited five canvases: Landscapes near the Bois (Paesaggi presso il Bois), meaning the Bois de Boulogne; Moonrise (Levar di luna); Vesuvius Countryside (Campagna del Vesuvio); Study of a Woman (Studio di donna); Road in Italy (Strada in Italia).
The same year he moved to London.

The exhibition in Milan mostly focuses on the relationship between his origin and his stay at the European capitals.

The French painters and De Nittis, who always felt profoundly Parisian by adoption, have addressed the same themes, including the landscape, the portrait and the representation of modern life that De Nittis was able to capture along the streets of the two metropolises he frequented, at the time great European art capitals: Paris and London. He was able to represent, together with the two metropolises, in an extraordinary en plein air technique, the privileged places of the mythology of modernity.

I wasn’t able to take a good look at how the exhibition is structured, for it takes place in very small rooms and the introductory area was crammed with a group of elderly, very noisy and very nosy people.
In talking about it, I’ll divide it into the groups I was able to grasp, following the places De Nittis visited and painted, and starting from Italt.

Italy: falling in love with the Vesuvius

As I was saying, Giuseppe De Nittis arrived in Naples in 1860 to enroll in the local Institute of Fine Arts, despite the initial objections from his family. The constraints of the academic environment made him fall out of love with the institute after three years, and he pursued his education independently with Marco De Gregorio and Federico Rossano. The painters gave birth to the artistic movement known as the Resìna School, named after the place where they were staying, soon after they were joined by the Tuscan Adriano Cecioni, who introduced them to the Macchiaioli current. They were later joined by various artists such as Raffaele Belliazzi, Alceste Campriani, Edoardo Dalbono, and Antonino Leto.

The goal of the group was to immerse themselves in nature and recover an essential, participatory vision of landscape without the intellectual superstructures that were being predicated in the academy: a deep communion with the natural environment was needed, according to them and other painters of this period, in order to paint truthfully.
This is the period that saw the birth of canvases such as Appuntamento nel bosco di Portici (A Date in the woods of Portici), L’Ofantino, which is a river, and La piana dell’Ofanto (The Ofanto Plane). Elements such as the clear light, vast skies, earthy roads and limed walls would remain forever on the painter’s palette, even when painting the fashionable horse races in Paris.

“What a beautiful time! With so much freedom, so much free air, so many endless races! And the sea, the great sky and the vast horizons! Far away the islands of Ischia and Procida; Sorrento and Castellammare in a rosy fog that, little by little, was dissolved by the sun. And a scent of wild mint and orange groves.”

De Nittis came back to these places ten years later, in November 1870, after leaving Paris because of the Franco-Prussian war and the unrest of the Commune, He spent long periods devoting himself to landscape studies, particularly by traveling daily to the slopes of Vesuvius. The fatigue or danger of the journey only fueled his fascination with the harsh landscape and unforgiving mountain.

The result is a numerous series of small studies entitled Sulle pendici del Vesuvio (On the slopes of Vesuvius) and Sulle falde del Vesuvio (On the slopes of Vesuvius), usually displayed side by side at the amazing Gallery of Modern Art here in Milan, and displayed in the same way here at the exhibition.
The small paintings are extraordinary for their composition, their cut, their technique and their color, to the point of being labeled as one of the most original outcomes of nineteenth-century Vedutism.
Vittorio Pica, an Italian writer and art critic from the late XIX / early XX century, compared these works with the visions of Mount Fuji by Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai.

As Monet would do with his Cathedrals twenty years later, De Nittis captures the mountain in different light conditions, investigating in real life how light affects its contours, crevasses, ridges, and sparse vegetation. Close-up views are paired with rigorous simplification, in which the rare human figure is usually absorbed by the environment.

De Nittis also finds himself at the right place in the right time (a sentence you can only utter if you’re a painter or a naturalist) when the Vesuvius erupts on April 26, 1872. The results are two works: Pioggia di cenere (Rain of Ashes) and L’eruzione del Vesuvio (The Eruotpion of Vesuvius). The traumatic event destroyed towns he had known and loved during his youth, including Resina and Portici.

Outdoor Paris

Transferred in 1867, Giuseppe De Nittis quickly became a prolific painter of Paris as a modern and worldly city, capturing its energy and transformative power through a series of outdoor paintings that will grow significantly larger. Uninterested in the classic urban view, often celebratory of streets and historical monuments, he approaches the painting of streets and parks as he did the paintings of the countryside: through a total immersion and real-life observation of its life and society, of how people experience public places. As urbanists struggle to understand even nowadays, monumental landmarks such as the Arc du Triomphe, the Place de la Madeleine, and les Invalides,  are merely backdrops for the life of the city.
His compositions are photographic, and he thrives when the weather is harsh. Splendid examples are Gardens of Paris with Pale Sun, Seine Landscape with Gray Sun, and Frost Effect. I’m completely in love with these atmospheric effects that will reach their peak, as one might imagine, once the artist visits London.

As we have seen, De Nittis had been a devoted painter en plain air since his earlier years with the Resina School, and he found in Paris the greatest supporters of this approach with the Impressionists. He frequented Édouard Manet, Gustave Caillebotte, and Edgar Degas. In 1874, Degas himself invited him to take part in the group’s historic first exhibition at the studio of photographer Félix Nadar, to which De Nittis sent five works, all examples of en plein air painting.

Horseracing in Paris

Starting in the 1850s, Paris experienced a series of urban transformations that permanently altered its landscape and, particularly, the city park called Bois de Boulogne was transformed from hunting grounds for French royalty to an open venue that quickly became popular amongst the new elite: leisure activities such as horseback riding and racing became widely requested and, to accommodate these pastimes, two racecourses were established at the park’s southern periphery: Longchamp and Auteuil.
Longchamp opened in 1857, followed by Auteuil in 1873.

For a man who loved dust in his youth and had grown to love well-dressed gatherings, this environment might have felt like Christmas, as it offered both.

Study for the Races

De Nittis recorded with an attentive eye the image of the elegant society sitting on the stands, carefully following the race hovering on the seats as in Alle corse di Auteuil. Sulla seggiola or distracting themselves, lost in the frivolous chatter of society, as in Studio per le corse I. A splendid canvas such as Il ritorno dalle corse (La signora col cane) tells of how races were a worldly event, in which one participated almost parading, wearing the best dress.

Return from the Races (Lady with a Dog)

Paris under the snow

For a guy from Apulia, snow must have been quite an extraordinary event and the weather in Paris made a point to astonish De Nittis with exceptional snowfalls between 1874 and 1875. The white candor provides a perfect backdrop to highlight people and their behaviour, but the artist doesn’t fail to capture the rarefied and luminous atmosphere, the impalpable dimension given by the snow to the grand city of Paris. De Nittis depicts the city engaged in amusements and struggles, white elegant ladies wrapped in heavy fur cloaks traverse Paris accompanied by small dogs and children. One particular pastime he appreciates is ice skating: On the Snow, The Skater and Léontine Skating, perfectly capture a sort of carefree winter joy.

These are works that mark the progressive alignment with the research of the Impressionists, in the meticulous study of atmospheric rendering and refraction of light. Played on a narrow range of colours and on the contrast between the figures in dark clothes in the foreground and the very bright and often deliberately blurred backgrounds, these paintings are characterised by great virtuosity in the weaving of chromatic accords, based on a thousand variations of white, beige, grey and violet.

Paris Indoor

In a city such as Paris, life doesn’t only happen in the street. On the contrary, it is in the salons that the aristocracy and middle-class meet and mingle, spreading new ideas and discussing the novelties of the age.

From the late 1870s, De Nittis began to study the effects of artificial light while indoors, and his research will follow the same approach it did en plein air. The numerous scenes of drawing rooms, by candlelight or gas lamps, will always pay great attention to the light source and quality, scattering or glowing around richly decorated interiors and elegant crowds.
And he will be welcomed among these gatherings, as he had triumphed in the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris, and was awarded the Legion of Honor. The painter held parties for artists and authors at his home on the rue Viète, and he was a regular guest at the salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, cousin of Emperor Napoleon III, in rue de Berry.
He paints one of these gatherings in the stunning canvas below.

The Salon of Princess Mathilde

My favourite painting of this period however has to be either the charming little scene titled Around the Shade, in which the point of light is such a main character that it’s in the freaking title, or the absolutely stunning Lady with a Fan.

Lady with a Fan

De Nittis was recognised by critics as “the painter of today’s elegance,” according to a definition by André Michel. In these refined interiors, mirror of the sumptuous taste of the Second Empire, are distinguished men in tuxedos, chatting quietly, but above all elegant ladies, wrapped in evening dresses with long train and vertiginous necklines, described with an incredible attention to the rendering of the shiny fabrics.

Around the Shade


In April 1874, De Nittis left for London in search of new patrons, as he finally fell out of favor with the merchant Adolphe Goupil. In the English capital, he found the painter James Tissot, who introduced him to London circles, fostering an acquaintance with the wealthy banker Kaye Knowles, among the artist’s greatest supporters.

“I worked so much in England and I loved London so much… from the first day, London was propitious for me.”

Study for the London Bridge

Far from being a stranger to poverty, De Nittis is profoundly struck by the living conditions he encounters in the slums and, though his patrons wouldn’t appreciate paintings dedicated to these themes, he manages to capture social differences even when celebrating the vibrant, modern life of London streets. From the National Gallery to the Church of Saint Martin, from Westminster to its Bridge, from Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, people of all kinds mingle in his paintings, and the keen observer will manage to capture all the contradictions De Nittis shows us.

Westminster Bridge

The best example of the way De Nittis mixes the subjects might be this view of a street in London, where an elegant lady with an umbrella crosses the street with her child and a homeless man is scrutinized by the uncaring look of a policeman, people go about in their carriages and a cardboard panel shouts about some things we will never know.

Japanese Fascination

When Japan participated for the first time in the Universal Exhibition of 1867, Paris and the whole world were flooded by a sort of fever for Japan: artists, writers, critics, and the public developed a hunger for these new forms and shapes, this aesthetical approach that was so pleasant and yet so modern.

De Nittis himself tried his hand at Japanizing subjects from 1869 onwards, introducing into his interiors oriental elements such as screens, etchings or kimonos. Three splendid examples are The Japanese Screen, Between the Screens and The Orange-colored Kimono.

Fascinated by Japanese art, De Nittis would also try his hand at creating silk fans with near-abstract brushes of watercolor. Although not traditionally included in exhibitions and retrospectives, these are unquestionably a testament to his will to understand the deepest principles of Japanese art, and are way ahead of their times in terms of technique and abstraction.

Back to painting outdoors: Switzerland and Saint-Germain-en-Laye

The exhibition goes full circle by dedicating one last room to the scenes De Nittis painted in the countryside, close to the premature end of his life.

An approach that always connected him with Impressionism, painting outdoors allowed De Nittis to pick a bright palette, especially when far away from the fogs of Paris and London, and his paintings light up with luminous tones, increasingly free brushstroke and chromatic contrast, the results of careful research on light.

He would die unexpectedly, on August 21, 1884. Buried at Pere Lachaise in Paris, his epitaph reads:

“Here lies the painter Giuseppe De Nittis, who died at the age of thirty-eight. In full youth. In full love. In full glory. Like heroes and demigods.”

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