Giuseppe De Nittis & 19th Century Italian Painting at The National Academy

Giuseppe De Nittis, L'amazzoneGiuseppe De Nittis, L’amazzone (1874), oil on canvas, 30 cm. x 42 cm.; courtesy Raccolte Frugone, Genoa

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The splendor of nineteenth-century French painting is so much a part of that epoch that it is almost easy to overlook the fact that painting was going on elsewhere during that time. This is, of course, an exaggeration. Even the most dilatory student of art history can name a few nineteenth-century painters of distinction working outside of France: Constable and Turner in England, for instance, or maybe Homer in the United States. Yet there can be no denying the pre-eminence of French painting in that century, as well as at the beginning of our own. The extraordinary confluence of talent and genius that was Impressionism alone is all but inconceivable to us today, inured, as we are, to a culture predicated on the gratifications of irony and spectacle.

So who can blame Roberto Tassi, essayist of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Masterpieces of Nineteenth-Century Italian Painting from the Gaetano Marzotto Collection, for writing with an art-historical chip on his shoulder? Catalogue essayists, by their very nature, are cheerleaders of a sort and Tassi is one who knows what he’s up against. He is, after all, arguing the merits of a group of unrenowned artists—unrenowned outside of Italy, anyway—who call into question, albeit gingerly, the School of Paris while begrudgingly acknowledging its accomplishments. The organizers of the Marzotto Collection know what they’re up against too. The introductory wall label states that one is “hard pressed to name an artist of stature working in Italy after Tiepolo and before the Futurists”—implying that, indeed, there were distinguished Italian painters working between those two points on the historical continuum. The Marzotto Collection is a show whose strongest offense, it would seem, is its defensiveness.

Masterpieces of Nineteenth-Century Italian Painting, organized in commemoration of the centenary of Gaetano Marzotto’s birth, consists of 120 paintings from the latter half of the nineteenth century. Marzotto was an industrialist of diverse interests, artistic as well as social, and his collection reflects a hard-headed credence in the tenable. Consequently, it abjures historical panoramas and mythical subjects for realist (one is tempted to say commonplace) paintings: landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, and genre studies. Marzotto seems to have valued proficiency above all else—a reflection, perhaps, of a businessman’s practicality—and the collection places a premium on competence gained through hard work.

Which is a praiseworthy attribute, but one that doesn’t guarantee significant art or make the Marzotto Collection any less run-of-the-mill. Exhibitions rarely look bad in the reassuringly stodgy environs of the National Academy, and the Marzotto Collection is no exception. But neither does it sing out. A painter friend told me that he left the show with little more than an impression of artistic facility. And, sure enough, of the thirty-odd artists represented here, there’s not a bum technician in the lot. Painting after painting, one is confronted with the product of “professionals.” The work in the Marzotto Collection is both familiar and forgettable. That it operates at a high level of craftsmanship says something about academic standards in the nineteenth century. But anyone who knows their art history will already be wise to that.

Most of the paintings in the Marzotto Collection are innocuous enough, though even devotees of kitsch may have an arduous time lauding the virtues of Ettore Tito’s saccharine tableaus. Sebastiano de Albertis’s military scenes, with their straining horses and clouds of battleground dust, are initially stirring but their bluster quickly thins. Similarly, Antonio Mancini’s portraits are those of a showman overly impressed with his own flash. The flickers of paint in The Model (1879), for example, don’t read as light so much as tinsel strewn over the painting’s surface. John Singer Sargent, upon seeing Mancini’s paintings, proclaimed him “the greatest living painter,” an intimation, perhaps, of the limitations of Sargent’s own brand of painterly glitz.

Even so, academics can have their good days, and there are paintings here that have some zing to them. The crisp, jewel-like blues and reds of Alberto Pasini’s “Orientalist” paintings are diverting, as is the languor of Domenico Morelli’s Turkish Baths (1876–78), an image whose eroticism is sparked as much by its chiseled contours and hazy tonalities as by its subject. Possibly the strangest painting in the collection is Giovanni Fattori’s The Watch (The White Wall) (c. 1871). An impossibly spare depiction of soldiers on horseback, The Watch, with its asymmetrical composition and geometric framework, is startlingly modern. That it was a popular painting in its own time offers proof, I suppose, that mass consensus is not always a dubious proposition. But these paintings are mild oddities in a collection that is, overall, of a piece and routine.

There is, as the cliché has it, an exception to every rule, and the Marzotto Collection includes one artist of stature. Prior to this exhibition, Giuseppe de Nittis (1846–1894) was unknown to me; he is, I believe, unknown to everyone but specialists in Italian art history. Which is unfortunate, because de Nittis is, as Tassi notes in his essay, “a painter’s painter.” He’s the real thing. De Nittis died young, of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of thirty-eight. Yet in that brief time he accomplished something substantial, and his paintings steal a show much in need of being stolen. With thirty works on view, it might seem difficult for an artist not to stand out, but de Nittis’s paintings take up little space. Most are small—averaging around 8″ x 10″—and the best of them, Towards the Mountain (c. 1860), is not much bigger than a baseball card. De Nittis is the star of the exhibition because of the quality of his paintings, and it is these paintings that make the Marzotto Collection worth visiting.

De Nittis, like many of his Italian peers, traveled to France and was aware of the advanced painting of his time. Tassi quibbles with the importance of such contact, assuring us that these visits were “relatively brief and, as a result, of little effect.” Yet, de Nittis settled in France in 1868. It is not too much of a stretch to presume that de Nittis’s hobnobbing with Degas had a certain gainful impact on his painting.

De Nittis emerges from the Marzotto Collection as a figure worthy of attention. The feature of his paintings that will appeal most to the modern eye is his brushwork. In de Nittis’s best work, his paint handling seems effortless, yet contributes to the structure of each painting. This is especially true in his landscapes and portraits. De Nittis’s larger paintings, particularly the city views, however, are stilted. Westminster (1878), for instance, is a disjointed melding of atmospheric gradations of light—what we have come to think of, more or less, as Impressionism—with a more naturalistic depiction of figures on a bridge. Renoir vetoed its inclusion in the first Impressionist exhibition because he felt that it placed too much emphasis on narrative. He was right: the figures weigh Westminster down. It’s a painting of two minds.

But not all of de Nittis’s figurative paintings are marred by this attribute. The lovely Tranquil Hour (1874), an image of two women idly riding in a boat, is a masterly dotting and dashing of paint reminiscent of Monet. In Portrait of the Journalist Martino Cafiero (1872), a dexterous study of gesture and character, the title figure examines a painting—is it one of de Nittis’s own?—with a cockiness that is not without a hint of comedy; on its own terms, it’s a tour de force. De Nittis also had a knack for pastels and the two portraits on view here—particularly the creamy Gaby (1880–81)—evince a draftsman capable of capturing nuance without strain.

But it is de Nittis’s small landscapes that are the most exceptional paintings in the Marzotto Collection, not in the least because they are, even now, so audacious. Here his paint handling achieves an ease so unfettered that its freshness can seem tossed off, sketchy. But they are, without question, fully realized paintings. Many of them are on panel, and de Nittis integrates the blonde tone of the wood with the image in a manner that avoids trickery. In Vesuvian Landscape with Snow (1871–72) and, especially, The Slopes of Vesuvius III (1871–72), de Nittis’s definition of form is relegated to a few unerring strokes of paint; their subtlety is devastating.

Likewise, the aforementioned Towards the Mountain reads, at first, as nothing more than a blur of paint. Which, in a way, is exactly what it is, but it is also a rather exacting delineation of figures in a landscape. (The reproduction of it in the catalogue clarifies its imagery at the expense of making it a different painting altogether—evidence, as if we needed it, that reproductions are never to be trusted.) Towards the Mountain’s fusing of medium and illusion—what Richard Wollheim has called “twofoldness”—is a joy to behold, a bit of painterly magic that most artists only dream of.

Towards the Mountain is a minor masterpiece worthy of inclusion in the Impressionist canon, as may be—who knows?—de Nittis himself. Of course, unearthing unknown masters from the hurly burly of art history is a favorite (and irresistible) parlor game of historians, curators, dealers, and, yes, art critics. I doubt that de Nittis is such a master. In the context of the Marzotto Collection he shines; among his French peers he may be little more than an out-of-towner who made good. Then again, good artists should not be lightly dismissed, and a comprehensive exhibition of his work would be welcome. But until some institution—the National Academy in conjunction with the Marzotto Corporation, perhaps?—mounts such a show, the de Nittis paintings in the Marzotto Collection will have to suffice. And, for the time being, they do.

© 1995 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 1995 edition of The New Criterion.

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