Picturing Venice III
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Three artists at the end of the nineteenth century and dawn of the twentieth century created distinctly personal images of Venice. Maurice Prendergast, John Singer Sargent, and Claude Monet seem light years away from Canaletto and Guardi’s view painting. Art for art’s sake became the standard bearer of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each artist felt free to develop their own style, marketing, and freedom of subject matter. Venice remained a much sought-after subject for many European and American artists. Peace in the region, the unification of Italy, and improved transportation opened opportunities for artists, tourists, and ex-patriots.
Today Venice is experiencing another seismic shift with climate change. Will the inhabitants, structures, and art work survive and prevail? Or have these artists captured the best of Venice’s storied past?
Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1859-1924) Prendergast painted a series of Venetian scenes less than twenty years after James McNeil Whistler’s Venetian etchings and pastels. Considered avant-garde, his paintings are colorful, slightly abstract, and very modern looking. Prendergast took an entirely different approach to painting Venice from Whistler. He made two trips to Venice, in 1898-99 and 1911-12 with fifty-eight watercolors produced in the first trip, and subsequently monotypes and oil paintings. They were shown in Chicago and Boston with great success as east coast Americans were fascinated with Venice. In addition, Americans embraced his new approach. Like many artists, Prendergast traveled frequently to Europe and studied in Paris. He considered his exposure to Europe and European artists essential to his artistic development.
Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Summer in Venice, watercolor, 1898-99, Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Museum, open access.
Prendergast described his first sixteen-month trip to Italy as an experience of a lifetime, and Venice was a highlight. He lived most of his life in Boston and New York as a shy and introverted bachelor. His paintings are frequently angular with a high horizon as he takes up different viewpoints of the city. He painted unnamed canals, people, and gondolas with repetitive geometric shapes formed by rhythmic brushstrokes. His treatment of water with repetitive blue, tan, and white short brushstrokes give the impression of little waves on calm waters.
His work is decorative and pleasing in nature. There is nothing gloomy or unhappy in his Venetian works. The colors are bright and uplifting. He successfully incorporates post-impressionist elements of Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse, by using color and repetitive shapes to compose and depict subjects. Prendergast is all about creating decorative patterns through color and forms, less so about painting detailed expansive views of the Ducal Palace, San Marco, or the Grand Canal. Unlike Turner’s blended colors in his later paintings, or Whistler’s tonally diffused scenes, Prendergast keeps vivid colors separated. People, while included in his paintings, are not individualized but become part of the pattern of color and shapes.
Maurice Brazil Prendergast, A Bridge in Venice, watercolor, 1899, The Cleveland Museum of Art, open access.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to nomadic, free spirited American parents. His other siblings were born in different Italian cities. As an expatriate, John and his family traveled freely, and in today’s terminology, was home schooled, learning multiple languages along with traditional subjects. His artistic talent emerged early and his youthful sketchbooks attest to his family’s travels with surprisingly sophisticated teenage drawings and watercolors of the Alps, Austria, Dolomites, and other plein air nature subjects.
John Singer Sargent, The Grand Canal, Venice, watercolor, c. 1902-4, Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Museum, open access. A rare panorama of the Grand Canal painted in a gondola by Palazzo Giustinian. Sargent gave this to a musician friend.
Sargent continued with formal art schooling and informal studies under an established artist in Paris, eventually winning praise and commissions for portraiture. He continued to travel throughout Europe, eventually settling in London, with prolonged stays and commissions in America. Patrons remained American based and he considered himself American, despite most of his life lived abroad. His non-traditional approach to composition, lighting, poses, and representation of the elite in portraiture sometimes produced shocking results and earned him disdain in some European circles; much less so in American circles. Overall his talents were much sought after and he experienced continued success. His personality was serious, reserved, and romantic. Like Prendergast, Sargent never married.
Sargent captured the likeness of many rich Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He remained active in contemporary art circles and befriended Monet and visited Monet's gardens and house at Giverny. He was well connected and an esteemed member of high society. Eventually fatigued with commissioned portraits of the elite, he turned towards landscapes. Venice was a favorite subject. He completed 150 Venetian watercolors and oils in nine plus visits between 1898-1913. The outbreak of World War I hampered travel to Europe and instead he turned to other outdoor subjects near and far, from the Canadian Rockies to Florida.
Sargent made his first trip to Venice at age 18, and then again at age 24, already an established artist. He lived in an apartment on the Piazza San Marco by the famous clock tower with a studio about a 15-20 minute walk away in the historic palace called Ca’ Rezzonico, where other American artists also had studios and poet Robert Browning resided.
1. John Singer Sargent, The Salute, watercolor, 1904-7, Yale University Art Gallery, open access. The Salute was a favorite subject for Sargent. His watercolors are generally an intimate size, with this watercolor approximately 21 x 14 inches. 2.John Singer Sargent, Santa Maria della Salute, watercolor, 1904, Brooklyn Museum, open access. Painted from a gondola in the midst of the Grand Canal, it is a rare dated painting. Sargent created a foreground of some gondoliers and other boats. 3. Photograph of the church from the Grand Canal.
Sargent painted Venetian subjects from a low point of view of that of a person arriving and approaching the building, usually in gondola. Unlike Canaletto, who often chose a higher vantage point of approximately a second story, or Turner who backed far away from the scene, Sargent’s vantage renders the subject, most likely a building, looming and dominant in the foreground. He was fond of the play of light and shadow on water and stone surfaces.
Human figures rarely take up compositional space and are loosely sketched in. He favored an oblique angle to a church or building, or a close-up detail of an archway or back alley.
His compositions are pleasingly unbalanced with expert applications of just enough color to unify the picture. Sargent has less interest in the typical iconic imagery and more interest in capturing atmosphere and the interplay of water and light. Unlike Whistler who doesn’t give place names to his work, nearly all of Sargent’s Venetian paintings have place names and details that allow the work to be located with precision on a map.
His early Venetian paintings have people, side alleys, and craftspeople at work. His later paintings are devoid of humans and concentrate on the canals, lagoon, light, reflection, and architectural details, especially Renaissance palaces and churches. A doorway, arch, bridge, steps, sculpture, or column might be the subject of the painting, rarely the entire structure.
1. John Singer Sargent, The Bridge of Sighs, watercolor, c. 1903-4, Brooklyn Museum, open access. Photographed frequently by tourists, the bridge leads from the Doge’s Palace to the prison, so called because of the legend that prisoners would sigh with their last glimpse of the water. The prow of Sargent’s gondola is visible in the foreground. 2. Photograph of the Bridge of Sighs.
He returned to Venice many times and painted in situ, frequently on the Grand Canal and many waterways. Not many paintings were finished in a studio, but right on the spot in the gondola. He gave away some watercolors as gifts and sold quite a few, but never self-promoted his art. Museums acquired most of his works, not private individuals. Sargent appreciated the idea that the public would have access to his works. The Brooklyn Museum of Art bought eighty-three watercolors from Sargent all together in 1909, including the 1904 Santa Maria della Salute and Bridge of Sighs pictured here. Sargent remains highly regarded today for his watercolors and unique compositions.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) Monet painted 37 Venetian views inspired by his 1908 October - December ten week stay. He and his wife Alice arrived at the invitation of a wealthy American through their mutual friend, John Singer Sargent. Almost 70 years old, Monet focused on the changing light and colors, much like his approach to his famous series of Rouen Cathedral, waterlilies and other nature subjects in Normandy, France.
Less interested in rendering precise architectural details, Monet concentrates on the changing light across the pink façade of the Ca’ Dario palace and the shimmering water in loose brushstrokes. He preferred to paint in a series, concentrating on the same subject in varying light and daytime conditions. Like Sargent, he painted from a low view point, but usually included most of the building. Unlike Sargent, Monet finished his paintings in his studio, most likely because he was working in the medium of oil paint, and due to his brief visit to Venice.
1. Claude Monet, Ca’ Dario, oil on canvas, 1908, The Art Institute of Chicago, CCO Public Domain Designation. 2. Ca’ Dario, Venice. Also known as Palazzo Dario; Ca’ is Venetian for casa or house.
He painted three canvases of the Doge’s Palace during his Venetian trip from the point of view seated in a gondola in the open water. In some paintings the outline of the palace barely emerges from the blurry atmosphere surrounding the building. Intense variations and repetitions of color patterns define the buildings and water. The buildings, water, and environment become one. His palette leans towards blues and greens, not always the actual color of the buildings or the water, but a heightened version of colors present in the scene. Sargent prefers a more neutral color scheme.
Sometimes he painted from the balcony of his hotel or Saint Mark’s Square. People are not included in these compositions or are just barely outlined. Monet’s Venice looks and feels devoid of action or bustling city life. Most of his Venetian view paintings were exhibited in Paris in 1912. For point of reference, Monet’s paintings are contemporaneous to Picasso’s bold new cubist art. One of Monet’s painting of the Doge’s Palace sold for $36,201,763 in 2019.
Although he intended to return to Venice – a city he resisted visiting due to over representation – the 1908 trip was his last outside of France. Monet was quite smitten with the city and as a lover of water paintings from the shores of Normandy to his water lilies in his garden, Venice was a perfect match for his artistic inclinations. Initially describing the city as too beautiful to paint, once he started, he became very productive, working on multiple canvases at a time.
After his Venetian trip he concentrated on painting his beloved Giverny garden until his death. The father of French Impressionism, Monet remained true to his personal expression of nature throughout his long career and many ups and downs in the market and critiques of his work.
By the time Monet visited Venice the city had become extremely popular with tourists of all economic backgrounds. Monet wasn’t the only impressionist to paint Venice. Monet’s contemporary Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) also painted Venetian views of the canals, St. Mark’s, and other landmarks during his 1881 trip.
1. Claude Monet, The Doge’s Palace, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art, open access. 2. Doge’s Palace, photograph, exterior.
Looking at nearly two hundred years of Venetian view paintings brings to mind some of the similarities persisting throughout the various styles and periods. All the artists from Canaletto to Monet are fascinated with the effect of water, as it reflects the architecture and as an atmospheric element. The British, American, and French artists in these posts all established their careers with some kind of seascape, river, or nature painting. They worked in a variety of mediums from oil, etching, pastel, to watercolor. All the artists distorted certain elements, architecturally, or from point of view, to enhance their compositions. Venice endured and enchanted visitors and artists, and continues to do so.
Each artist captured their interpretation of Venice. But where are the Venetian people in these art works? Mostly they are missing except for indistinct dabs of paint. The structures, canals, churches, bridges, and waterscapes dominate. The mythic nature of the buildings erase the inhabitants. Only Canaletto gave some representation to people carrying out everyday activities. Some of Sargent’s early work featured the inhabitants, but that quickly faded or the people he painted literally became faceless.
The artists represented an enhanced idealized reality of Venice, which tourists today expect to experience. Venice has survived plagues, Napoleon’s invasion, Austrian rule, and two World Wars, but will it survive climate change as rising sea levels damage the city? Venetians are very nervous and worried, and with good cause.
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Lovell, Margaretta. Venice: The American View 1860-1920. The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1984.
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