Giuseppe De Nittis painted At the Racetrack in 1874--one of the most prolific years in his career, and one of the most important times in the history of modern painting, as this was the year of the first Impressionist exhibition at the Nadar Gallery in Paris. In fact, it was at the invitation of Degas that De Nittis joined Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and provided five paintings for inclusion in this
inaugural exhibition of 1874--the show that would alter the course of art history.
While De Nittis's earliest training was in his native Italy as a member of the Macchiaioli group, or those Italian artists who painted out-of-doors, in essence, he was an Impressionist, having moved to Paris in 1867, where he would spend the rest of his life. Like the Impressionist painters, De Nittis was a champion of what Charles Baudelaire called "the heroism of modern life," or to use another Baudelairian term, De Nittis was a flaneur, for the painter of la vie moderne "had to be a wanderer in the big city--a perfect flaneur, the passionate spectator, whom we might liken to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself." (V. Steele, Paris Fashion--A Cultural History, New York, 1988, p. 90). In the mid-1870's De Nittis travelled to London where he found another city of urban scenes, including Westminster and Piccadilly. These English views reflected the technical innovations he had learned from the French Impressionists in the early 1870's.
We cannot be certain if At the Racetrack depicts the well-known racecourse, Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, or if it is a souvenir from De Nittis's trip to London in the mid-1870's, and would therefore represent "Rotten Row" or the paddock where the horses excercised before a race in Hyde Park. Longchamp had been completely refurbished and renovated in the 1850's as part of the master plan for the "new" Paris that emerged under Napoleon III. Like the new public buildings, commercial centers and grand boulevards created by Baron Hausmann, Longchamp provided a perfect setting for the modern painters, who used the racetrack as a backdrop to record contemporary Parisian life. In At the Racetrack, the posts separating the spectators from the horses are similar to other paintings of Longchamp painted by De Nittis in 1874, however the chairs are definitely English in style.
The elegant ladies and gentlemen in De Nittis's painting, who are enjoying a day's outing at the races, are dressed in the ultimate degree of sartorial splendor, chronicling the high life and style in France and England during the period of the Belle-Epoque, or final decades of the 19th century. The capital of women's fashion during this period was uncontestably Paris, where the Maison Paquin reigned supreme, while Savile Row in London provided impeccably tailored outfits to suit any occasion for the proper gentleman. Such an occasion would have been a fashionable rendez-vous in Hyde Park or Longchamp. As the 19th century French writer, Jules Janin asked, "Where will you find a more animated sight (than that) at the promenade of Longchamp?" on a racing day, there was intense competition "of elegance, of luxury...People were no longer there merely to exhibit themselves but to be judged." The spectators were as interested in the contest of fashions as in the contest of horses on the turf. Janin even maintained that among the crowd were "the milliner and seamstress," proud to see their handiwork displayed. (quoted in V. Steele, p. 169).
De Nittis may have found the inspiration for At the Racetrack in one of Degas's most important entries to the 1874 Impressionist exhibition, At the Races in the Country. The modern composition of De Nittis's painting, where the central figure group is shown from behind, and the left vertical border is cut off, similar to a photograph, demonstrate De Nittis's assimilation of the "new" ideas of French Impressionists.
Giuseppue De Nittis died suddenly from a stroke at the age of 38. The pallbearers at his funeral included Degas, Edmund de Goncourt and Alexandre Dumas fils. It is in such works as At the Racetrack that we see a glimpse of the genius of this great artist, whose untimely death cut short what was already a brilliant career.