Sunrise on Impressionism: 2 Giuseppe De Nittis

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Breakfast in the Garden (c 1883), oil on canvas, 81 x 117 cm, Pinacoteca De Nittis, Barletta, Italy. By LPLT, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of the thirty artists whose work was shown in the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in April 1874, only seven are now generally recognised as French Impressionists. One of the twenty-three who have been largely forgotten today was the Italian artist Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), then known by the French translation of his name, and billed as Joseph DeNittis, a resident of Paris.

The catalogue lists five of his paintings:

  • Landscape near Blois,
  • Moonrise. Vesuvius,
  • Countryside around Vesuvius,
  • Studies of a woman,
  • Road in Italy.

None of those can be obviously linked to any of his surviving and accessible paintings today.

De Nittis had moved to Paris in 1867 following initial success in Italy. He quickly joined artistic circles with de Goncourt, Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Manet, Degas, Tissot, Gustave Doré, and his compatriots Telemaco Signorini, Serafino De Tivoli, Giovanni Boldini, and Diego Martelli, of the Macchiaioli. The following year he signed a contract to supply the Paris dealer Goupil with genre works. In 1869 he had two paintings accepted for the Salon.

In 1872, following the interruption brought by the Franco-Prussian War, he received critical success with a painting of his shown in the Salon, and returned to Italy to paint Mount Vesuvius during its eruptions, for Goupil.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Seascape near Naples (1873), oil on wood, 24.5 x 61 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Although his small oil sketches of Vesuvius are quite painterly, his finished landscapes at this time are finely realist, as in this Seascape near Naples from 1873.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Che Freddo! (Freezing!) (1874), oil on canvas, 55 x 74 cm, Private collection. Athenaeum.

He had two paintings shown in the Salon of 1874, including Che freddo! (Freezing!) (1874). Edgar Degas invited him to take part in the First Impressionist Exhibition that year, although Goupil tried to dissuade him from doing so, pointing out the terms of his contract. De Nittis was painting in London at the time of the exhibition, where wealthy patrons such as the banker Kaye Knowles enabled him to terminate his contract with Goupil.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Country Road – the Bank of the Ofanto (c 1874-5), oil on canvas, 43 x 65 cm, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Barletta, Italy. By LPLT, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although probably painted shortly after the First Impressionist Exhibition, this view of a Country Road – the Bank of the Ofanto (c 1874-5) may give an idea of his likely style in 1874.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), The Victoria Embankment, London (1875), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, The Victoria Embankment, London, one of his paintings from London in 1875, retains fine detail despite the coarser brushwork in the mud of the road.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Return from the Races (1875), oil on canvas, 70 x 105 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Athenaeum.

De Nittis exhibited successfully again in the Salon in 1875, 1876, 1877, and 1879. He never exhibited at another Impressionist Exhibition. Over this period, he remained quite tightly realist in those works destined for the Salon, but his other paintings show abundant free brushstrokes. He also became an enthusiast for Japonisme, then becoming popular among the Impressionists and others in the avant garde.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Westminster (1878), oil on canvas, 110 x 195 cm, Private collection. Athenaeum.

His painting campaign in London in 1878 was commercially successful, and that year he showed twelve paintings at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. He and his wife entertained many writers and artists, including Degas, Manet, Caillebotte, and de Goncourt, and he was awarded the medal of the Legion of Honour.

His views of Westminster (above) and Westminster Bridge (below) from that year had taken a decidedly Impressionist turn in style.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Westminster Bridge (1878), oil on canvas, 80 x 134 cm, Pinacoteca De Nittis, Barletta, Italy. By LPLT, via Wikimedia Commons.
Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), In the Fields around London (c 1881), oil on canvas, 45 x 55 cm, Private collection. Athenaeum.

In 1882, he visited London again in company with James Tissot and Jules Bastien-Lepage, and De Nittis had his first exhibition at Georges Petit’s gallery in Paris, as part of the first Exposition Internationale which he had helped Petit to plan.

Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–1884), Breakfast in the Garden (c 1884), oil on canvas, 81 x 117 cm, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Barletta, Italy. By LPLT, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Spring of 1884, he painted what was probably his most technically accomplished work, Breakfast in the Garden, in which his wife and young son are seen enjoying an open-air meal. His treatment of the reflecting surfaces of the glass, china, and metal is superb, comparable perhaps with the likes of Janet Fish in recent years. However the ducks and garden behind are wonderfully painterly, and show his control over facture.

This was one of three paintings which he had accepted for the Salon of 1884. However, he died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage (stroke) on 21 August 1884, at the age of just 38.

The Galerie Bernheim Jeune, Paris, held a memorial exhibition in 1886, and his works featured in the Venice Biennale in 1901, 1914, and 1928. His major retrospective exhibition was held in his home town of Barletta in 1934.

Unlike most of the others who exhibited at the First Impressionist Exhibition, De Nittis was already well on his way to success, both in terms of exhibiting elsewhere and financially. When he died suddenly at the height of that success, like Bastien-Lepage just four months later, the eventual fate of his art was sealed.


The First Impressionist Exhibition (in Italian), containing
the exhibition catalogue

Angiuli A (2007) Guida Rapida, Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, Palazzo della Marra, Electa Napoli. ISBN 978 88 510 0402 6.
Belloli M & Lamacchia G (2007) Il Dossier De Nittis, Un maestro dell’Impressionismo nella documentazione degli Archives Nationales de France, Stilo Editrice. ISBN 978 88 87 78173 1.
Monti R et al. (1990) Giuseppe De Nittis, Dipinti 1864-1884, Artificio. ISBN not given.
Sperken CF (2007) Giuseppe De Nittis da Barletta a Parigi, Schena Editore. ISBN 978 88 82 29708 4.
Rewald J (1973) The History of Impressionism, 4th edn, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. ISBN 0 87070 369 2.