De Nittis, whose work is explored in the Phillips Collection’s engaging and revealing exhibition “Giuseppe De Nittis: An Italian Impressionist in Paris,” was born into a prosperous family in Apulia, in southern Italy. But he also worked in Paris and London, was friends with Manet, Degas and Gustave Caillebotte, and exhibited in the first impressionist exhibition of 1874 in Paris. He built up a considerable career as a painter before his sudden death from a stroke at the age of 38 in 1884.
Caillebotte’s intersection with greatness
He was immensely talented and highly skilled, with a unique eye and sensitivity, but still remains relatively unknown. De Nittis’ early death may have something to do with it. But more likely, his facility as a painter, and his ability to produce both polished salon work and ambitious visual experiments, made him a difficult artist to define. As one of the catalog essays for this exhibition observes, he was a “man in the middle.” And art history does not take kindly to anything that smacks of compromise or indecision.
Art museums are well stocked with lesser impressionists and post-impressionists, artists who caught the drift but not the core of the new painting styles that emerged in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. De Nittis was not that kind of artist. His exploration of color and composition was as distinctive and even radical as any by his better known friends and colleagues. But he was deeply and unapologetically bourgeois in his basic worldview, and elegant dresses, sumptuous fabrics and beautiful faces were as attractive to him as light refracted by clouds, fog or smog.
An exhibition of De Nittis’ work in Paris more than a decade ago used the subtitle “elegant modernity” to describe his work, and it is his relationship to elegance that may have limited his posthumous reputation. When he painted night life, he turned not to the demimonde of rowdy cafes or circus spectacles, but to the soft and flattering light of a sumptuous salon. When he painted the women of Paris, they were not bleary-eyed from too much drink, or their bodies surrendered to the intrusive gaze of male clients and patrons. They were well dressed, self-possessed and alert to the world around them.
In a late work, from 1884, De Nittis captured his wife and son at breakfast at an outdoor table in a well-tended garden. The colors have the brightness and luster of Manet, and you might wish you had sunglasses when you look at the sun-drenched grass in the background. But despite that, the atmosphere is one of gentleness and calm. The fine dishes and flowers on the table invite the viewer to linger in a pool of perfect shade. The artist will disturb our sense of color and light, but he will not disturb breakfast.
There is no seamless bottom to these works, which are both elegant and modern, as if there is no contradiction between the two ideas. For De Nittis there certainly wasn’t. But that doesn’t make him a smug or bland artist, especially when you consider his salon elegance in the larger context of his early landscapes, including that painting of a passing train.
The evasive train and the blown trees both suggest unseen forces. It’s not even clear which way the train is going, given what feels like a puff of smoke blowing towards the viewer (carried by wind faster than the advancing train itself, or drifting lazily towards us as the train moving in the background?) . Roads that seem to sway into the distance were a common theme of De Nittis’s early work, as if he was trying to both his ambition – to make art in the 19th century capital – and a growing sense of displacement, as capturing transport networks. deleted the distance between Naples and Paris, and ideas of home and permanence obliterated.
In Paris, a battle for Notre Dame
His later cityscapes in Paris have a similar sense of unease. Paris was changed during the years De Nittis lived there (he settled permanently in Paris in 1868). War and revolution left their scars, and the massive disruption of Baron Haussmann’s efforts at urban renewal made the city a perpetual building site, full of incipient order and beauty as well as the chaos and disruption of construction.
The grittiness of urban life is present in De Nittis’ work, not through social markers such as poverty or exploitation, but architecturally. The street scene captured in his 1875 “The Place des Pyramides” is as cold and damp as the glittering cobblestones of Caillebotte’s 1877 “Paris Street; Rainy day.” But the scaffolding around the building, the jumble of street signs and the drooping clouds leave the impression that the elegant people scattered through the crowd are not quite at home in this evolving space, nor fully in control you may feel your hand instinctively reach for the pocket that holds your purse, or for a tighter grip on your wallet.
Unseen, even cataclysmic forces are present in a remarkable series of paintings De Nittis made of Vesuvius in 1872. In two images, he captures not only the eruption of the volcano, but also the rush of spectators and day-trippers caught up in the drama. These works were too radical for De Nittis’ dealer at the time, but in the same year he produced one of his first major successes, “The Road From Naples to Brindisi,” which on the surface appears to be a more conventional painting until you start looking at it. closely.
Heat radiates from the wide open, treeless street, as a man’s leg sticks out of the door of a carriage, leaving us unsure whether he is jumping in or tumbling out. The surrounding landscape is flat and without any distinguishing features, and the sky has a lazy, fiery summer emptiness. The people present, including the one caught by that enigmatic leg sticking out of the wagon in some in-between space, come and go without ever arriving or staying.
At the National Gallery, a first American survey of Carpaccio’s work
These are stronger, more interesting, more compelling paintings than some of the elegant Parisian scenes that De Nittis would make a few years later. But there is no sense that his ambiguous landscapes or uneasy cityscapes are somehow more authentic to the artist’s true sensibility than his salon-friendly work, the ladies watching ice-skating or horse racing or stirring a cup of tea in a fancy garden . They are not radically different, or incompatible views of the world, but rather two views of the same world, highly interdependent on each other’s innate truth. Elegance has its costs. Modernity disrupted time and space, making it much cheaper for ordinary people to set a fine table and dress for the evening.
De Nittis died young, famous, respected, loved and deeply in debt. His personal ties to the Impressionists remained strong, although he kept his professional distance from the label of Impressionism. The Phillips exhibition, curated by Renato Miracco, leaves it uncertain which direction De Nittis might have taken, which trend – towards elegance, or modernity? – could have gotten swing. Full disclosure: Miracco is a friend. But the exhibition he put together lets De Nittis speak for himself. And De Nittis speaks clearly, with a clear and individual voice, and while it may seem as if he was “a man in the middle”, the work argues otherwise. He painted the world just as he saw it, whether in the harsh glare of a southern sun or the warm glow of gaslight. Those worlds were connected, and he inhabited both.
An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis Until February 12 at the Phillips Collection. phillipscollection.org.