Giuseppe De Nittis
Giuseppe De Nittis, “Return from the Races,” (1875); Philadelphia Museum of Art; courtesy of the Phillips

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“If one day my son were to ask me where to find happiness, I would answer: in painting,” the Italian impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis (1846-1884) once shared.

A friend of fellow artists such as Edgar Degas, James Tissot, Édouard Manet, Gustave Doré, and a fashionable set of notables—Oscar Wilde, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte—De Nittis was a bright star and beloved by many. But he’s all but unknown outside of his native Italy today. The Phillips Collection should be commended for curating the first major U.S. exhibition displaying 72 of the artist’s exquisite works. An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis includes 32 pieces from Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis, the museum in his hometown of Barletta, Italy, where his widow donated the bulk of his works after his sudden death due to stroke at age 38.

As the small, southeastern Italian city does not have the visibility of Rome, Venice, and Florence, this exhibition begins to correct the historical erasure of an incredibly talented and obscured artist.

As a young artist, De Nittis caught the eye of Degas, who became his mentor and included him in his first impressionist show. De Nittis’ rose-colored racehorse scenes show the early influence of Degas, but look closer and there is both the immediacy and vibrancy we associate with impressionists, but also incredibly detailed facial expressions, gestures, and individual persons (and horses) emerging out of the pastel glory. De Nittis’ works, unsurprisingly, moved seamlessly between the (sometimes) more conservative and staid style of the Parisian Salon and the freer brushstrokes and floral palettes of the impressionists. There are women of fashion (often his favorite model, muse, and beloved wife Léontine), scenes of destruction (the eruption of Vesuvius), and realistic street scenes of Paris depicting different social classes, the increasing urbanization and mechanization of France, and the rebuilding after the Franco-Prussian War.

The work he created during his last two years of life—a time spent composing some of his most elaborate interior scenes of the bold and beautiful at Parisian salons, and his most touching and intimate sun-dappled paintings of his adored wife and son—best represents the artistry and vision of this incredible Italian impressionist. 

An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis closes on Feb. 12 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Tuesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. $16.