Giuseppe De Nittis: The Forgotten Impressionist

The Italian painter found fame and fortune in Paris in the late 19th century, but his name was quickly scrubbed from the history of the predominantly-French Impressionist movement. A groundbreaking show at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. is attempting to correct this injustice.
Giuseppe De Nittis, Breakfast in the Garden, 1884. © Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Barletta

The Adriatic city of Barletta is typically Italian, with its ferry boats plying busily to and from its Balkan neighbors, its Gothic-Romanesque cathedral in the main square, its archeological footprint of successive Roman, Carthaginian, and Norman occupations, and its fine museum, the Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, where more than 120 paintings build a visual narrative of a young painter’s love affair, not with his native Italy, but with France.

In the 19th century, Paris was the destination of all artists, including Italians. The Paris Salon was an international lure, offering artistic and commercial recognition to French and foreign practitioners alike. And so it was for Giuseppe De Nittis, who made his home in Paris from his mid-twenties. He was the only Italian artist to exhibit in the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. Four years later, he received a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle, and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

What complicates De Nittis as the subject of critical study is that whereas he saw himself as “the most French of the French,” as he once put it, his affection for his adopted country turned out to be a case of unrequited love.

Giuseppe De Nittis, Return from the Races, 1875. © Philadelphia Museum of Art

Following his untimely death in 1884 at the age of 38, his obituary in Le Figaro focused on his popularity, his high status in the ranks of the Impressionists, his Italianness, and his originality. But the posthumous adulation was short lived. His death, and the fact that he was Italian and not French, caused him to be written out of the history of Impressionism by his adopted country. International politics must have played some role, since French art was basking in the afterglow of the Impressionists’ impact on the world, and Italy soon faced the ostracism of being a Fascist nation.

Reassessing the Artist

Now, from across the Atlantic, comes an attempt to correct that historical omission. It takes the form of an exhibition called An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis at the prestigious Phillips Collection in Washington. Based on new research and new thinking, the exhibition sets out to reassess the artist’s short, creative life, placing him squarely within, or close to, the Impressionist group, particularly Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Gustave Caillebotte.

“Whether De Nittis was an Impressionist or not, the term was unimportant to him,” writes the leading curator of the exhibition, Renato Miracco, a respected expert on Italian artists of the modern era and a former cultural attaché at the Embassy of Italy in the United States. “But if by Impressionism we mean a predominantly French current shaped by multiple international influences, there was a touch of it in his art.”

Giuseppe De Nittis, In the Wheat Field, 1873.
Giuseppe De Nittis, The Place du Carrousel: The Ruins of the Tuileries, 1882. © Musée du Louvre, Paris

Elsewhere, in discussing De Nittis’s relationship with his closest French Impressionist colleagues, Miracco observes that the Italian artist “never completed a work without asking himself what Degas would say about it,” which to some would qualify as more than just a touch. Several works by friends included in this groundbreaking exhibition would seem to testify to this artistic closeness.

An Artist’s Affection for Paris

De Nittis’s first visit to Paris in 1867 was an epiphany. He couldn’t wait to return the following year to become a permanent resident of the City of Light. In short order, the gifted young Italian painter of Mediterranean landscapes from his native southern Italy was recording the urban transition of a major European metropolis.

He did so with a little help from his friends. Manet and Degas took him to the races at Auteuil, and the French love of horse racing became a recurring subject. His elegant Return from the Races (1875) is in the exhibition, as are racecourse scenes from both Manet and Degas themselves. His affection for Paris is expressed in images of Baron Haussmann’s urban transformation of the French capital. In 1883, the artist’s painting The Place du Carrousel: The Ruins of the Tuileries, which is also in the Washington show, was acquired by the French government and now belongs to the Louvre.

Giuseppe De Nittis, Léontine in a Boat, 1874.

His well-groomed crowds promenading in the Jardin du Luxembourg or down wide boulevards – men in top hats, women in ruffle dresses carrying umbrellas – are his tribute to the rising Parisian bourgeoisie and his place in it (Emile Zola came for tea!), and his French wife Léontine can languish in a rowboat as gracefully as any other Impressionist’s partner. In keeping with another favorite subject of the movement, De Nittis belched his fair share of locomotive smoke, most noticeably in The Train Passes (1869) and Trains Passing (1884).

Recognition, Once Again

In the competitive atmosphere of the Paris art world, De Nittis had his rivals as well as his friends. On at least one occasion, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir withdrew their paintings from an exhibition on learning that De Nittis was also showing. (Monet later relented, however.) Still, he was buried in the cemetery of French poets and artists, Père Lachaise, and the epitaph on his tombstone was written by Alexandre Dumas the Younger: “Here lies the painter Joseph De Nittis/Dead at thirty-eight/In full youth/In full glory/Like the heroes and the demigods.”

After her husband’s death, Léontine De Nittis gave a sizable number of his paintings to the city of Barletta with the stipulation that none would ever be sold or given away, thereby keeping an impressive collection intact, but further limiting their well-deserved larger presence in the art world. The Phillips Collection had no paintings by De Nittis in its permanent collection. Of the 60 paintings by the Italian artist included in the show, 32 are on loan from the Pinacoteca, with the remainder coming from institutions such as the Louvre and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and from a small group of private owners.

Following on from a 2010-2011 show at the Petit Palais – the first De Nittis exhibition in Paris since 1886 – the Phillips Collection is providing a distinguished, attention-grabbing venue to a long-overlooked artist, further pursuing his rehabilitation. An Italian Impressionist in Paris, Miracco says, “firmly cements De Nittis as a missing and important piece in understanding Impressionism.”


An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis, at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. through February 12, 2023.

Article published in the January 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.