Picturing Venice II
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
1797-1848 were years of unrest and foreign rule in Venice, until Italy strove for unification, rejecting foreign rule. Venice did not thrive artistically during this period, however,1860-1915 were important years, starting with the unification of Italy, and ending with World War I. During these fifty-five years Venice became a mecca for European and American artists. Approximately 90 American artists worked in Venice during this time period producing over 3,000 works of art.
Some came in order to make money as views of Venice were still in demand, and some came because they were drawn to the water, color, architecture, and people. Some were destitute and some were very successful. A British artist (Turner), three Americans (Whistler, Prendergast, and Sargent), and the French artist (Monet) created their own distinctive versions of Venice.
Artists were in turn influenced by Canaletto and Guardi’s earlier view paintings but Turner, Whistler, Prendergast, Sargent, and Monet’s world view was very different. These artists were outsiders, foreigners. The art world had changed considerably since the days of the Grand Tour. No longer incumbent on providing views only for visitors, they had more artistic freedom to choose their subjects and medium. Paris was now the center of the art world and the epitome of modern; Venice was the symbol of romantic decay frozen in time.
The concept that the aesthetic should be decoupled from political, moral, or propaganda motives had taken hold and as a result the elite were not the sole patrons of art. They were still influential patrons, but not the only patrons. Artists relied more on galleries, public showings, and less so on the rich for recognition and survival. Turner spearheaded a new vision for picturing Venice that successive artists admired. We’ll consider these artist’s Venetian artworks chronologically starting with Turner and Whistler in this post, then Prendergast, Sargent, and finally Monet in the next post. But first, some social and historical background.
Venice, Napoleon, and Austria
Venice was very much in a transitional state in the late 1700s until the last half of the nineteenth century. In 1797 Venice’s stable 1000 year old Republic ended as the city, drained of economic importance, fell to Napoleon. Napoleon “gifted” Venice to Austria in exchange for peace, then the city came back under French rule, then back to the Austrians with Napoleon’s 1815 defeat.
Coupled with the Napoleonic Wars, French control, Austrian rule, and improved transportation options, more and more it was foreigners that came to the city. Prior to the upheaval caused by Napoleon and the ensuing transfer of Venice to Austria, Venetians lived orderly lives and had not experienced uprisings or anything remotely equivalent to the French Revolution. Now they were a political pawn and not in control of their city.
Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Napoleon, 1812. Miniature ivory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Venice had never before been attacked nor had their artwork and precious objects looted. Napoleon did what he pleased with Venice’s art treasures. The bronze horses of San Marco were taken to Paris, along with paintings and manuscripts which still are property of the Louvre Museum. The horses were eventually returned to San Marco under Austrian rule. French soldiers smashed the gilded Bucintoro vessel. Napoleon did everything he could to diminish the importance of the Catholic Church, which was integral to Venetian life. He closed churches, reduced the number of parishes, and tired to substitute worship to a secular state, and himself.
Austrians ruled Venice from 1814-1848. They modernized the city and added gas lines in the 1830s and the railway line linking Venice to the mainland in 1846. Despite the so-called progress, the Venetians deeply resented control by another country. However, western Europe saw a wave of nationalism resulting in great unrest. Italy finally became geographically unified as a country in 1866 after three Wars of Independence. The Venetians welcomed the end of foreign rule and began to think of themselves as not only Venetians, but as Italians.
There was long period of time with instability and war when Venice was inaccessible to artists and visitors. When Venice was open to visitors again, the artists, poets, and writers didn’t hesitate to come. Turner was the first to make a mark and change the way Venice was pictured.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1789-1862) The son of a barber, Turner was born and raised in London. Considered England’s greatest painter, he was formally schooled in the Royal Academy where he later became Professor. Seascapes were his first subjects. The Napoleonic Wars hampered travel across the English Chanel and he finally realized a trip to Italy at age 44 in 1819. His watercolors utilized a new technique and ushered in a romantic vison of Venice. During three brief visits to Venice, in 1819, 1833, and 1840, all under Austrian rule, he made 550 pencil sketches. By the time Turner made his final visit to Venice steamer ships made the journey much quicker and enabled more visitors and artists to experience the city.
Joseph Turner, The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. The Dogana is the custom’s house. Turner condensed the depth of field so the church San Giorgio Maggiore appears closer than it really is. In this earlier painting he has yet to develop his trademark style.
His work, particularly his oil paintings, were often considered cutting edge, very modern, and not always good sellers. The watercolors and the prints made from them were often his main source of income. Turner was well aware of Canaletto, whom he admired, and most likely Guardi, as many Brits possessed their artworks. He was also keen on making money, and views of Venice were consistently in demand. Oil paintings were completed in his London studio as the travel trips were for “fast art,” typically watercolors and sketches.
San Giorgio Maggiore approaching from Santa Maria della Salute.
Sublime and dreamy are words often used to describe Turner’s work. The luminosity of his art seems to have influenced Impressionists and his work is borderline abstract. In his later work it is difficult to pinpoint the outlines of the structures and exactly where the viewer is located in the city. This is an artistic transformation from Canaletto’s detailed renderings 100 years earlier. He prefers locating buildings further back from the viewer with greater expanses of water, which reveals his experience and expertise as a marine artist.
Even though his brushstrokes are soft and indistinct, the compositions are highly structured. There is nothing accidental about his art – don’t let the broad expanses of foggy color and mist fool you into thinking he did these quickly. He was a highly disciplined and organized artist; nothing was hastily done. His watercolors and oil paintings are harmonious and depict a benign Venice with nothing ominous or threatening happening. Turner’s Venice does not reflect the years of instability or war as they are more an exercise in color and atmosphere. One would never known foreign rulers controlled Venice at the time.
Joseph Turner, The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, 1843, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. The Dogana is the custom’s house where all the ships stopped on their way into Venice from the East and other ports.
At his death he had a large quantity of art work in his studio. He donated more than 300 paintings and 20,000 drawings to the British nation. His art work was well known and respected by contemporaries and the subsequent artists who visited and painted, sketched, or etched Venice. Whistler seems to take up where Turner left off.
Joseph Turner, Approach to Venice, 1844, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. The bell tower of San Marco’s square appears to the right of center.
James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) Whistler’s Venetian story is markedly different from other artists. He arrived in Venice bankrupt, destitute and seeking redemption. He made one trip to Venice in 1879-1880 for fourteen months and the art he conceived there restored his career. Like many artists, he intended to stay for a shorter period of time (three months) but extended his stay. Venice was inexpensive and offered him artistic inspiration.
Born in America, Whistler studied in Paris and then based himself in London, etching and painting water scenes. He was also an expert in pastels. Etching allowed for small print runs. Etchings are made by incising lines in copperplates prepared with a thin acid-resistant coating, then exposing the plate to acid which reveals the design. Whistler used dental tools for etching the scenes. The remainder of the acid resistant coating is removed, the plate is inked, and a printing press transfers the ink to paper.
James McNeil Whistler, Nocturne, an etching from the second Venice set, 1886, Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Museum, open access.
His story seems right out of a romantic version of modern artists, poor and unable to sell his art, becoming respected only later in life. In London, Whistler tried to raise funds for a trip to Venice but failed. He then exhibited eight artworks in 1877 which were heavily criticized by John Ruskin, influential English art critic and author of the The Stones of Venice. Ruskin was old-school and had a strong bias for Italian Renaissance art, not modern art. Whistler sued for libel. He won but was awarded one farthing, a quarter of a penny. Whistler couldn’t pay his court costs, he had a new house, and debts. He was declared insolvent in 1879 and had nothing to his name. The London based Fine Arts Society offered him a small commission for twelve etchings of Venice, and immediately off he went. He returned with not twelve etchings, but fifty and more than 100 pastels. If London was his ruination, Venice was his muse.
Whistler had little interest in creating more view panorama paintings showcasing the typical architecture scenes like Canaletto or Guardi. He followed his own instinct and remained true to himself, despite the criticism about etching or pastels as inferior art mediums. Critics were especially disdainful of the rough brown wrapping paper he used for pastels. Although he never achieved great economic success, Whistler skillfully self-promoted his art to public galleries, at the time a relatively new concept. He retained control of the etching print process and would not relinquish his hands-on approach to plate preparation and printing. He was esteemed by artists and Whistler brought back the use of pastels as a higher art form.
James McNeil Whistler, The Storm - Sunset, pastel, 1880, Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Museum, open access. The bell tower could be either San Giorgio Maggiore or San Marco; representing the exact location or naming the art after the place was not Whistler’s priority.
Whistler was drawn to the atmospheric nature of Venice, especially at night. Turner is an influence in Whistler’s evocative handling of nuanced color. It is difficult to make out the buildings. They are swallowed up by mist and shadowy light. He uses a low horizon, blurs the edges of the buildings, and prefers a sunset dusky light. Depicting tonal variations is of upmost importance, certainly more than detailed depictions of the building. His art does not contain many people, and if there are people, they are sketched in lightly. He championed the concept of art for art’s sake and often gave his work music related titles such as Nocturne rather than the building or place name. It is difficult to tell exactly which canal, church, building or location in Venice he depicted.
Venice at night. The city takes on a completely different atmosphere at night, and is much less crowded. Santa Maria della Salute, Grand Canal, Piazza San Marco, Grand Canal.
Whistler’s pastels were generally well received and his Venetian etchings were exhibited in New York City. He moved to Paris in 1892 and continued to print his etchings on demand. His most famous works are the Venetian etchings and pastels, as well as the iconic oil painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, otherwise known as Whistler’s Mother.
Stay tuned for the next post when we’ll see the colorful Maurice Brazil Prendergast, brilliant John Singer Sargent, and world renown Claude Monet put their own spin on Venice.
Baetjer, Katharine. “‘Canaletti Painting’: On Turner, Canaletto, and Venice.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 42, 2007, pp. 163–17.
George, Hardy. “Turner in Venice.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 53, no. 1, 1971, pp. 84-87.
Lovell, Margaretta. A Visitable Past: Views of Venice by American Artists 1860-1915. University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Lovell, Margaretta. Venice: The American View 1860-1920. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1984.
MacDonald, Margaret F. Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice. University California Press, 2001.
Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Penguin Books, 2012.