In the Archives of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Simona Mezzina
Thursday 20 June 2019

There are many things the Laidlaw Scholarship allows its scholars to do: improve their leadership skills, research interesting topics, travel around the world, meet new friends. What it did for me, however, was slightly more magical. How many of us, whether art history students, researchers or simply fans, can say to have had access to the archives of one of the most important art museums in the world? Well, this is exactly what the Laidlaw programme, with its travel fund, allowed me to do. But let me give you some context.

Last year my research project focused on the life of impressionist painter Giuseppe De Nittis, an artist born and raised in my hometown – Barletta, Apulia, Southern Italy – who moved to Paris in 1867 to join the Impressionist circle, showing his works in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 in the studio of the photographer Nadar. He gained wide artistic and personal success throughout his life, certainly aided by his charismatic personality, which won him a place among the brightest intellectuals and wealthiest social elite of the Belle Époque Paris. As a result, his paintings became real documents of a society that was living its most glorious time before an inevitable fall, a real-life testimony of the most popular seasonal events and aristocratic salons, witnessed by the artist with his own eyes. Portraying the uses and costumes of a social class De Nittis and his wife Léontine made every effort to be identified with, for my second year of research I decided to focus precisely on the paintings that presented these social events with the incredible details that distinguished De Nittis’ painting.

So, what has Philadelphia to do with all of this? Why this American city, you might be wondering? The answer lies precisely in an artwork. In particular, an 1875 version of Return From The Races, donated to the museum in 1906. The last time this painting was exhibited in Europe was in 2010, during the biggest exhibition on this artist held at the Petit Palais in Paris, titled “Giuseppe De Nittis: La modernité élégante”. Indeed, this painting perfectly shows how, in one of the most important social events of the season – the horse races at the Bois de Boulogne – the Parisian high class flaunted clothes and accessories representing a modern concept of elegance and style, captured by the careful eye of De Nittis who masterfully depicted every frill, lace and shiny jewel. For the purpose of my research, which this year focuses on the artist’s depiction of Parisian high society’s fashion, womenswear in particular, this painting was just essential. Thanks to the incredible kindness of the European Painting department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I had access to the storage room where the artwork is kept, among many, many others. I was escorted into the room by the Departmental Coordinator, whose badge and fingerprint were used to magically open the door. A gigantic Robert Motherwell welcomed us inside, probably ready to be taken upstairs for an upcoming exhibition. Behind it, two paintings of Italian manufacture belonging to the Catholic tradition, probably dated somewhere in the 1300s. The artwork I was going to study, however, was in the back of the room, in the last rack on the left. Slowly approaching it, the feeling of being in the presence of so much art most people do not have access to was almost overwhelming.

1. Giuseppe De Nittis, Return From the Races, 1875 (I have taken this picture in the storage room of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

To have been able to look at it so closely, without glasses or barriers, to appreciate every single detail and brushstroke on the canvas, is something I still cannot quite believe. I have tried to process it in the past few days, trying to find similarities to other emotions I might have experienced, and the only thing that came to my mind was looking at a new-born baby for the first time. The feelings of wonder, excitement, fear were all the same. I stood there staring at each little dot and line for almost an hour, and only when I moved away from the painting, I realised that art, as life, is a series of extremely fortunate or unfortunate events, as the causes that bring an artist to fame, or oblivion.

After 1884, the year of the premature death of Peppino, a nickname De Nittis reserved to his closest friends, the city of Paris, the home that the artist had chosen for himself and his family, slowly let his memory vanish. It took over a century for them to acknowledge his importance once again. The very fortunate events that brought me to that storage room, made clear that no matter what happens in the future, De Nittis’ work will never be forgotten, at least in my mind. It will always be part of my heritage, and many others’ as well, as long as there will be people willing to share their memories with the world.

2. Me standing in front of the painting. As you can read in the blog, I stared at it for almost an hour, observing every little detail.

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