Mason Art

Posted: July 19, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Nineteenth-Century Italian Gouache Paintings

By Robin Herron

Hundreds of people have attended meetings and conferences in the Mason Hall meeting room, D3 A and B, and probably have wondered about the paintings depicting Mount Vesuvius—some tranquil, some exploding—on the walls.

The collection, comprising 19 gouaches, was assembled by John M. Mathy and donated to the university in 1983 after his death. Not much is known about why or how he collected them, but in a booklet about the collection published last year, Carol Mattusch, Mathy Professor of Art History, wrote that Mathy became interested in the paintings during trips to Europe in the 1960s and ’70s and purchased them in antique shops and sales in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

Mt. Vesuvius exploding
A view of Naples, Mount Vesuvius, and the Castle of St. Elmo, painted in 1822.

The 19th century paintings were precursors to today’s picture postcards; in the days before photography, they served as souvenirs of a traveler’s trip abroad. Most of the paintings in Mason’s collection depict Naples, Italy, with its picturesque harbor and towering volcano. Naples was a scenic and popular stop for visitors making the “grand tour” of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the intermittent explosions of Mount Vesuvius were an irresistible draw.

The painters, who rarely signed their works, used gouache, a water-soluble pigment similar to watercolor, but opaque instead of transparent. Mason’s collection, although related by subject matter and medium, was obviously painted by several different artists. Nineteenth-century gouaches are very hard to find today, even in Naples, and Mason’s is one of the largest collections in North America.

Mt. Vesuvius on fire
This painting shows a fiery eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1839.

The booklet about the collection, titled George Mason University’s 19th Century Italian Gouache Paintings, was developed by Mattusch with help from students in her courses. It is available in Mason Hall in D3 and at the information booth.

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