As a founding member of the Italian Macchiaioli group whose theories on painting mirrored those espoused by the French Impressionists, Giuseppe De Nittis was drawn to Paris, the artistic centre of contemporary painting. A champion of what Charles Baudelaire called 'the heroism of modern life', his images captured the intrinsic uniqueness of the city. he quickly befriended Degas who invited him to exhibit at the first Impressionist show at the Nadar Gallery.
Whilst living in Paris, De Nittis had become one of the artists represented by Adolphe Goupil, a leading Art dealer in Paris, painting highly-finished anecdotal subjects that were the dealer's stock-in-trade, as well as more impressionist and adventurously composed canvases of modern subjects. However, it was for his use of perspective in his oil sketches that De Nittis was welcomed at the Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and for which he would be held in high esteem by his contemporaries.
The use of complex perspective devices that the artist employed in his Parisian street scenes became a strong feature in his painted works of London. He travelled for the first time to London in 1875, the year in which Veduta di Londra (The Victoria Embankment, London) was painted. De Nittis painted a number of these small oils of city life in London, all of which, in the words of the writer and close friend of the artist, Jules Clarétie '...would serve as lasting historical records of the topography and atmosphere of the places he painted...'with a '...fevered, troubled, refined...' response to the modern spectacle and a malleable cosmopolitan attitude '...ce Napolitain est...Parisien à Paris, comme il sera Londonner [sic] à Londres.'
Interestingly, this comment has remained true and this picture remains a historical record of the location depicted as seen in the photograph of this location (fig. 1). The present work can be directly compared to Westminster Bridge II (fig. 2), one of three versions of Westminster Bridge that artist executed during his stay in London.
The extended trips made by the artist to London (1875-1881) coincided with one of the happiest and most productive of his short life. It was in London that De Nittis befriended artists such as Tissot, Millais, Leighton, Watts and Alma Tadema. While in London he stayed with one of his patrons, the banker Kaye Knowles.
It was not just the physical aspects of these cityscapes that proved to be difficult to fully master, but London's distinctive light and atmosphere was a principal challenge for the artist. And so it had been for his predecessors, that had stood in the very same locations a few years earlier and encountered similar difficulties. Monet, for example, painted a beautiful work of the Thames and Westminster in 1871, La Tamise et le Parlement (fig. 3), choosing to illustrate modernity through the chugging steamboats on the Thames, rather than the speeding carriages and fashionable ladies.
It is true that De Nittis' London views conveyed the unique climatic conditions and ambiance of the city in a way that had characterised his earlier Paris subjects, reflecting the technical innovations he had learned from the French Impressionists in the early 1870's, particularly from Edgar Degas, who had invited him to participate in the first Impressionist exhibition. As Enrico Piceni wrote, 'This painter of the deep Italian South, captured their Englishness better than they...(his London pictures) are amongst the most successful interpretations of the mood of a city and its inhabitants' (E. Piceni, 'Giuseppe de Nittis', Three Italian Friends of the Impressionists, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 35). With quick brushstrokes and luminous colour, De Nittis captured the essence of this bustling metropolis as elegant women and children scurry along the pavements and horse drawn carriages parade down the tree-lined avenues. While the scene is almost photographic in quality, it uses an artful composition with strong verticals balancing the bold diagonals of the road and pavements, leading the eye back to the distant towers of the Houses of Parliament, the ultimate symbol of British power.
In a letter dated 25 June 1875, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother his reaction upon seeing one of De Nittis' paintings at Goupil:
'Several days ago we received a painting by De Nittis, a view of London with the bridge of Westminster and Parliament, every morning and every evening I have been in the habit of crossing the Westminster Bridge and I know the sun as it sets below Parliament, and the early morning, and winter with snow and fog. Looking at the painting I felt as if I loved London (quoted in M. B. Bonsante, 'Immagini di Londra nella pittura di De Nittis', Giuseppe De Nittis, exh. cat., Florence, 1990, p. 49).