And de Nittis “saw” modern life. Beautiful exhibition at the Royal Palace in Milan


By John

To better be able to follow the characters and movements of the plein air at the end of the 19th century, since “street” painters were not allowed in Paris, he even purchased a carriage, from which he could finally glean in complete freedom what was passing in front of him. Perhaps this is why his painting is so alive, immediate, photographic. This is Giuseppe de Nittis. For the first time, Palazzo Reale in Milan dedicates a large monographic exhibition to him, curated by Fernando Mazzocca and Paola Zatti, until June 30: «De Nittis, painter of modern life». Approximately 90 oils and pastels are on display, coming from large galleries and private collections around the world.

De Nittis (Barletta 1846-Paris 1884) is a “case” in the panorama of painting. A life – very short – filled with dramas, experiences, triumphs, international popularity, and then a name that is sometimes underestimated. Born into a wealthy family, he lost his mother at the age of 3 and two years later his father committed suicide as a victim of political misadventures. He was entrusted to his grandparents. Enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, he was expelled for indiscipline. It was still his path, even if, instead of copying the classical Greeks, he cultivated the singular talent of going and painting outdoors. It wouldn't have taken long for him to meet those young revolutionaries who passed for “Macchiaioli” in Florence, where he went in 1866.

A supporter, Adriano Cecioni, encouraged him in the «Giornale artistic». The following year he was in Paris. Other imaginative young people called “Impressionists” worked there. What he needed. He was considered one of them and as such, in 1872, accepted, the only non-Frenchman, to exhibit at the Salon. An incredible success.
In the meantime he had also found his soul mate, Léontine Gruvelle, who played a fundamental role in the life of the young artist, celebrated, with Boldini, as the greatest Italian representative of painting and even awarded, in 1878, the Legion of Honour. In those years de Nittis divided his time between Paris and London, becoming the illustrator par excellence of that fin de siècle.

At the height of his success, he wanted to leave the city and hide in the countryside, in direct contact with nature, but was struck down by a brain stroke, in front of his easel. He was 38 years old. Almost enough time to have “seen nothing but kites fall from the sky.”
That much loved sky: «I have painted pictures of it! Heavens! Only skies. I loved them all. I love life. I love painting. I love everything I have painted.” It is this happiness that emanates from de Nittis' paintings that makes them an unrepeatable unicum. An overwhelming, very elegant lightness. Whether he paints graceful female figures (Léontine is the constant model) or walks along city avenues or rural landscapes, it is all airy, immediate, photographic.

Photography will be one of the great interests that De Nittis shares with Degas and Manet, his close friends. Reviewing the splendid oils and pastels of the exhibition, he immediately notices a very personal character that distinguishes him from the Impressionists, even if the themes are sometimes identical. It is not for nothing that he will be a master of pastel, a technique that allows nuances, transparencies, particular flashes. De Nittis was also very quick in using the brush and this immediacy brings his subjects to life like few others can do. Consider Léontine skating, in a flurry of snowflakes, her fur a little wet, the long hairs of her fur disheveled, in a hurry to get dry. Even in the portrait “Winter Day”, played on a few shades: grey, white, silver, everything is melancholy ephemeral. And the modest attention to treating the nude, surprising the figure from behind, with soft elegance – in «Nude with red stockings». But it is above all in the overviews, in the walk in the Tuileries or along the Thames that the characters talk about these years that are entering the “modern” world.

«Place des Piramides» or «lunch in Posillipo» reveal an equal attention to detail: capturing the immediate. As in that extraordinary «Passa il train» where the train is announced by an invasive, almost roaring smoke. In “Breakfast in the Garden” a diner got up from the set table and left his napkin in its place, a pledge of a future return (which will not happen: it is de Nittis's last painting).

Upon the painter's death, the family suffers financial collapse. Léontine had created a high-attendance but high-spending worldly salon, incurring ruinous debts. As had happened with Mozart, the young widow had to roll up her own sleeves. She did it with great courage and, in the end, she also managed to donate the largest part of the collection of her famous husband's works to her hometown, Barletta.