America’s Kentucky Derby on May 6, Preakness on May 25, and Belmont Stakes on June10 have been run for the year 2023. England’s Royal Ascot was run from June 20 through June 24. One other world class European horse race in 2023, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, will run during the first week of October at Longchamps race course in Paris. Longchamps, Paris’s most prestigious course, was built in 1857 on top of the ruins of an abbey that was destroyed during the French Revolution. Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie attended the first race at Longchamps on Sunday, April 27, 1857.
Both artists Manet and Degas painted the races at Longchamps, concentrating on the horses and the track. The Italian artist Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-1884) was more interested in the crowds of people who attended races. In “The Races at Longchamps from the Grandstand” (1883) (39”x48’’) De Nittis devoted two-thirds of the canvas to a view of the race from the top of the grandstand down to the track. He created several diagonals in the composition: people seated in the grandstand, people standing on the ground by the rails, a stretch of dirt track with horses working out, and the crowd behind the rail on the opposite side of the track. The diagonals are enclosed by the dark roof over the grandstand.
Gentlemen in top hats and dark suits escort women wearing black dresses and a variety of black hats. Here and there he injects a dash of orange and red, picking up the color of the horses, and the orange fall foliage in the distance. De Nittis uses a light-yellow color to shine light on the manicured ground where some yellow chairs have been provided for the crowd. The track and the crowd standing beyond the rail are composed of a combination of yellows and orange-browns. Pops of white appear in shirt collars, pale skin, jockey silks, two tents, a white tower, and a few houses in the distance. White clouds complete the color palette.
De Nittis was born in Barletta, a port city on the Adriatic on the west coast of Italy. He began art lessons at an early age in Naples, where he was admitted to the Realis Institution de Bella Art. He was expelled in1863 because he had opinions and spoke his mind. He said, “I became my own sole master.” He moved to Paris in 1868 where he became friends with Manet and Degas.
Degas invited De Nittis to show his work with the Impressionists in their first exhibition in 1874. He was the only Italian artist invited. De Nittis is frequently listed with the Impressionists. However, he employed only some of the Impressionists’ style while maintaining a strong traditional realist style. De Nittis’s “In the Shade of the Trees on the Racecourse” (1874) illustrates these two styles. Like the Impressionists he was a plein-air painter. While Impressionists decided to use only the colors of the rainbow, De Nittis continued to employ black, and he did not use the colors of the rainbow to create shadows. The elegant top hat and suit are highlighted with grays, as is the shadow on the white collar. The lady’s lovely blue and white striped dress does not contain any orange or yellow to create highlights; the traditional white and gray are used. However, the dapples of sunlight visible through the trees and the leaves, are mere splotches of paint.
Like the Impressionists, De Nittis painted outdoors and used a shorter brush stroke to paint objects in the distance. Most like the Impressionists, De Nittis was interested in painting scenes of modern life: racetracks, strollers on boulevards or boating on rivers, and the bourgeois middle-class enjoying life’s pleasures. This painting is also called “The Flirtation,” a delightful scene of people enjoying a sunny day, prancing horses, and fashionably dressed ladies strolling under parasols. De Nittis’s paintings were in great demand. His work sold well, causing some criticism by both French and Italian artists who called his work commercial and superficial.
“Return from the Races” (1875) (23’’x45’’) (Philadelphia Museum of Art) depicts the bourgeoise sitting at outdoor tables and chairs, under the shade of leafy trees on a sunny afternoon. Horse-drawn carriages pass by on the way home from the race. Continuing to employ many black and white images, De Nittis included a wider palette of yellow, pink, tan, bright green, and light greens. The bark and fall foliage of the trees, more loosely and colorfully painted, stand out against a light blue sky with puffy white clouds. The shadows at the bottom of the clouds are an Impressionistic light purple. The more distant group of people is suggested by dabs and dots of paint. This work is part realism and part Impressionism.
“Lady Walking her Dog” (1878), also titled “The Return from the Races,” singles out one of the fashionably dressed ladies De Nittis often depicted. She is beautiful and self-assured. Her outfit consists of a black hat that smartly but suggestively veils her face. The collar of her coat flares out in in three tiers, and her sheer black scarf is tied in a bow. Five pairs of shiny black buttons close her belted coat. Light gray leather gloves complete her outfit. This is a fashion statement. Also making a statement is the large golden-brown mastiff that she holds by the collar with her right hand, and the small whip she holds in her left hand. The people and the city in the background to the left and right of her head, serve only to highlight her face, not calling attention to themselves. This De Nittis painting was exhibited at the 1878 World Expo in Paris.
De Nittis was immensely popular and sociable in his time. Among the several exhibitions he participated in was the 1876 Universal Exposition, where he exhibited 20 paintings and won a gold medal. That year he also was made a member of the French Legion of Honor. He frequently traveled between Paris and London where he continued to chronicle the middle-class in front of the two cities’ signature sights. He and his wife Leontine held one of Paris’s most lively salons at their home. The walls were covered with paintings by Corot, Degas, Manet, Monet, and Japanese woodcuts. Guests included such famous writers as Alexander Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, Emil Zola, Edmond Goncourt, who wrote the Dictionary of Art History, and luminaries such as Princess Matilda Bonaparte. Meals were cooked by De Nittis, who was proud both of his art and his cooking.
De Nittis died in Paris at age 38 from a stroke. A major retrospective of his work was held at The Galerie Bernheim Jeune in Paris in 1886. His work was featured at the Venice Biennale in 1901, 1914, and 1928. The Italian government issued the De Nittis postage stamp (1984) featuring the third section of his triptych “Le Course al Bois De Boulogne” (Longchamps) as a part of the Italian art series. The Impressionist artists such as Monet, Renoir, and Degas remain well-known, but De Nittis’s name has fallen by the wayside. The exhibition Small wonder: the forgotten art of Giuseppe de Nittis in New York in 1995 brought attention to his work.
The exhibition titled An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe de Nittis, from November to February 2023, at The Phillips collection in Washington, D.C., continues to bring him well-deserved recognition.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.