De Nittis, Painter of Modern Elegance - Part 1
By Simona Mezzina, Fashion Editor
Giuseppe De Nittis was born in Barletta, an Apulian city in the south of Italy, in 1846. Trained at the Istituto di Belle Arti in Naples, where he only studied for two years before his expulsion, De Nittis, or Peppino, as his friends called him, begun his career as a painter in 1863. Traveling throughout Europe, he captured everything his eyes had seen in his works. In 1868, Peppino established himself in Paris, the place he will call home until his death in 1884. It was the Paris that Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were revolutionizing, with the great perspectives of the three-lanes boulevards, Charles Garnier’s Opéra, Place de la Nation and Bois de Boulogne. Paris was a stage alive with people of all sorts, a stage made of streets, squares, galleries and cafes, an open-air studio in which the artistic language turned into a narration. De Nittis’ gaze, elegant and ironic, neurotic and sensitive, focused on these people, to tell the tales of a modern city characterized by its eternal beauty and outstanding harmony preserved in every expression of human freedom. Peppino was a true flâneur, in the deepest sense intended by Baudelaire in his “Painter of Modern Life” (1863). Crowds were his realm, and within this realm he expressed the essence of modernity, capturing an ideological sense of beauty in the fascinating images of the wealthy bourgeoisie of the Second Empire.
In this reportage of modernity, so finely exhibited in the dresses of the willowy women who walked around Paris with their solemn gait, De Nittis’ eye was particularly sensitive to the smallest details that characterized women’s fashion of the time, finding room in his paintings for each crinoline, lace or bow. If modernity was the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, to quote once again Charles Baudelaire, then nothing better than fashion, itself an ever-changing phenomenon, could have been used to find eternity in the ephemeral.
France’s dominion on European fashion originated in the years of Louis XIV, and was now back in virtue with absolute supremacy after the success of the Second Empire (1851-1870), an historical period of opulence and prosperity, characterised by the establishment of a financial and business-orientated bourgeoisie, whose exasperated hedonism manifested itself in a continuous search for visible signs of their new-found power and status. Fashion was therefore chosen as an ideal form to express, in the complex system of rites and customs, one’s social advancement. Couturiers and well-known artists were called to translate this urgency to show off the new wealth, and to satisfy the multiple aesthetic requirements of the 19th-century ladies. The fashion system, intended in its modern acceptation, was born with Charles Frédérick Worth (1825-1895), the first tailor to create clothes on original designs, protected by copyright, exhibited to the clientele by living mannequins, and ready to be reproduced custom-made. The success of the fashion system, as a product with its own commercial value, reached its peak in the last quarter of the 19th century, years in which De Nittis was mostly active, himself fully aware of the impact and influence of fashion, so much so that he was willing to document it on his canvases.
“To be Parisian and in society (mondain) was to be a participant in its rituals: in winter, theater, balls, parties, and concerts; in the spring, races; and in summer, bathing at beaches”. It was at these events that the latest trends in fashion were exhibited, in accordance to the expositions des modes seasonally organized by the most important department stores of the capital. It was an anticipation of the actual fashion shows, which were going to be introduced towards the end of the century. The Bois de Boulogne, a venue for riding on horseback or in carriages, was an unofficial fashion show, as well as the horse races at the Hippodrome de Longchamp, also to be found in the same location. De Nittis was certainly aware of this and made of the races one of his most recurrent themes.
The left panel of the large pastel triptych titled Race at the Bois de Boulogne (fig. 4) shows a woman wearing a long dark furry coat under which a tartan dress can be seen making its appearance. The shape of the coat suggests the presence of a cuirass bodice underneath, an interlude from the evolution of the classical bustle that had started in 1876. In fact, from 1877 to 1881, the years during which De Nittis completed his triptych, the bustle disappeared or was worn very low on the hips to create a long-limbed line. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection features a day dress (fig. 5) dated around 1897 which presents not only a tartan bell skirt with similar yellow tones as the one in the painting, anticipating a pastel shades trend of the early 20th century, but also the characteristic cuirass bodice, fitting closely over the hips and shaped to resemble a bolero jacket. The new bodice was, in fact, slim at the hips and without the bustle, the volume of the skirt was significantly reduced, so to create a long-line dress silhouette without the usual frills that had previously characterized crinolines and polonaise skirts.
To be continued…