Friday, February 20, 2009

Faire la modernité durable

Although Impressionism quickly spread and mutated around the world, one thinks of it in its origins as a purely French movement, the province of Monet, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Cézanne, Guillaumin, and Morisot, with Mary Cassatt the sole interloper from abroad.

Portrait of Giuseppe de Nittis by H.T. (possibly Henri Toussaint, 1849-1911)

But there was also an Italian among the group, Giuseppe de Nittis (known in France as Joseph de Nittis). Giuseppe de Nittis was born in the town Barletta in Puglia on 25 February, 1846, and died young at the age of just 38, on 21 August 1884, from a catastrophic stroke. He died in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, having moved to France in 1867 on the advice of the minor Impressionist Marcellin Desboutin, whom he met by chance in Florence. Restless in the confines of academic art, de Nittis had already been expelled from the Instituto di Belle Arti in Naples for indiscipline.

In Paris, de Nittis studied under two stalwarts of the academic old guard, Gérôme and Meissonier; at the same time he was under contract to the dealer Goupil to paint genre pieces. But his sympathies were with the newly emerging Impressionist aesthetic. Already in Italy in the 1860s de Nittis had become involved with the Barbizon-influenced group of progressive Tuscan artists known as the Macchiaioli, becoming friends with its leading light, Telemaco Signorini, and exhibiting with the group. In Paris, Degas befriended him, and asked him to exhibit with the Impressionists (before they had earned that initially-derisory name). Giuseppe de Nittis contributed 5 works to the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, though unlike the core members of the group he did not completely forsake the traditional world of the Paris Salon.

Giuseppe de Nittis had considerable success in France, and was particularly admired for his paintings of Parisian woman and street scenes, for his pastels, and for the subtlety and freshness of his etchings and drypoints, which are very lightly worked, with details suggested rather than over-elaborated, and daring use of blank space. The conservative Gazette des Beaux-Arts published five prints by de Nittis between 1876 and 1885, and a sixth hitherto unpublished plate in 1913. By contrast it was not until 1907 that the Gazette published original work by Renoir or Morisot.

Giuseppe de Nittis
Route de Castellamare
Etching after his own painting, 1876

I have (or, in the case of Femme assise sur un canapé, had) four of the prints contributed by de Nittis to the Gazette. The first was Route de Castellamare in 1876. Etched by de Nittis after his own painting exhibited in the Salon of the same year, it shows an Italian peasant couple sitting by the roadside, eating grapes. This realistic, even slightly sentimental subject was the artist’s entrée to the straitlaced world of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and his subsequent contributions were much more clearly allied to Impressionism. Even in this less adventurous print one can see in such details as the man’s hobnailed boots the clarity of vision which de Nittis meant when he spoke, as he often did, of “the eye of an artist”.

In 1881 the Gazette published Étude dans mon jardin to illustrate an article by Alfred de Lostalot on “Les pastels de M. de Nittis”. I haven’t seen this plate. In 1884 the Gazette published two further previously unpublished etchings, Jeune femme and Vue prise à Londres, this time accompanying an obituary of de Nittis by Ary Renan, a poet and artist who had been a pupil of Puvis de Chavannes, and who was deeply influenced by Gustave Moreau and the Symbolists. By this time, the Gazette was beginning to catch on to Impressionism, and was also publishing prints by Félix Bracquemond, as well as etchings by Henri Guérard after Manet and the Danish Impressionist Peder Severin Krøyer. Both of the de Nittis etchings seem to me to be typical of early Impressionism – the portrait of a young woman as charming and fresh as a Renoir, the London scene as atmospheric and brooding as a Buhot.

Giuseppe de Nittis
Jeune femme
Etching and drypoint, 1884

Interestingly, in his obituary Ary Renan tackles head on the question of whether de Nittis should be counted among the Impressionists, who were still the subject of jibes and scorn. Renan regards the art of de Nittis as a kind of bridge between Impressionism and public taste. He writes, “But what will become more and more apparent is that, without knowing it, he rehabilitated the Impressionist school, of which he was not a member. Under the cover of his virtuosity, he was able to freely penetrate the mind of the public with one part of the doctrine of Impressionism – the good part.” (Sous le couvert de ses dons de virtuose, it faisait pénétrer en franchise, dans l’esprit du public, une partie de la doctrine de I’impressionisme,- la bonne; I think I've translated this right, but would welcome corrections.) In his work, Renan says, the modern movement was fixed without being slowed (fixi sans être ralenti), which I guess means that de Nittis established a form of modernity that was both true to the ideals of Impressionism and acceptable to the general public, without compromising the movement as a whole. His aim, Renan says, was to make modernity last (faire la modernité durable).

Giuseppe de Nittis
Vue prise à Londres
Etching, 1884

The following year, the Gazette published one of Giuseppe de Nittis’s last etchings, Jeune femme vue de dos (which I haven’t seen), and also an etching by Guérard after one of de Nittis’s London paintings, Une marchande d’allumettes à Londres.

In 1913 the Gazette published one last de Nittis etching from an unpublished plate, Femme assise sur un canapé, which is also known as Étude [Femme assise le torse dénudé]. The nude model in this delicate study looks straight at you out of the image, in a way that irresistibly recalls Manet. I believe the sitter is Léontine Gruville, de Nittis’s wife and frequent model, who survived him by 30 years.

Giuseppe de Nittis
Femme assise sur un canapé
Etching, published posthumously in 1913

A generous bequest of works by Léontine forms the basis of the collection of the Giuseppe de Nittis museum in Barlatta.

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