Gulf of Spezia
Henry Roderick Newman (American, 1843–1917)
145.73 x 202.25 cm (57 3/8 x 79 5/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery (Gallery 233)
One of Henry Roderick Newman’s favorite landscapes, besides Florence, was the Gulf of Spezia, on the west coast of Italy halfway between the ports of Genoa and Livorno (Leghorn). Newman painted several views of the bay from the small town of San Terenzo, on the east side of the bay near Lerici, a location his biographer, Henry Buxton Forman, described as “the loveliest spot in the whole Riviera del Levante.”The site was appealing not only for its rocky coast, punctuated by castles, but also for its tragic history: in 1822, the great English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a shipwreck here; his body washed ashore some twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) to the south and was burned on the beach under the supervision of Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Italian health officials.
Gulf of Spezia is an unusually ambitious composition for Newman in both scale and medium. Newman seldom worked in such a large format, or in oil, preferring instead the intimacy of works on paper, yet he fashioned this painting with the same exacting method he had perfected in watercolor. He first coated the canvas with a light ground, then proceeded to apply his paint thinly, using a delicate stipple technique of tiny brushstrokes to render every feature of his subject. His procedure is uniform throughout the composition: both the distant hills and sea and the closest trees and rocks show the same precise attention to detail. The effect is somewhat disconcerting, for the viewer looks down into the rocky cove and across the bay to the large castle simultaneously, with no distinct emphasis on either outlook. Following English critic John Ruskin’s dictum to treat each object with equal importance, Newman created a mesmerizing world where everything is in focus, as though it were viewed through a sharp lens.
1. H. Buxton Forman, “An American Studio in Florence,” The Manhattan [magazine] 3, June 1884, 536.
This text was adapted from Erica E. Hirshler’s entry in The Lure of Italy: American Artists and the Italian Experience, 1760–1914, by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., et al., exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1992).
Lower left: H R Newman/1884.
By 1890, given by the artist to his wife, Maria Watson Willis Newman (died 1924); 1925, sold by the estate of Maria Newman to the MFA for $1,682.92. (Accession Date: April 2, 1925)
Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund