Painted On Water

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FOR MUCH OF THE history of the United States, American artists have looked across the Atlantic: for better schooling than they could find at home, for a culture in which art was valued more highly than it was in Puritan America, and often for style and subject matter. In recent decades, however, the preeminence of American art has brought about a selective revision of our art history. Today the evolution of American art is likely to be presented as a continuous struggle to throw off European influence.

That is only part of the truth. We know Thomas Moran as a painter who specialized in the spectacular mountain scenery of the American West. But the fact is that for decades his most popular subject was Venice. Nor was it only an educated elite that wanted to look at pictures of Venice; in 1898 the calendar publishers Brown & Bigelow reproduced one of Moran’s Venetian paintings in an edition of twenty-two million, an extraordinary figure when one considers that our population in 1900 was about seventy-six million.

Americans had established colonies in Rome and Florence long before the Civil War. By the eighties and nineties of the last century, the Piazza San Marco in Venice had become the living room of Europe, and Americans flocked to the great port city of the Adriatic.

WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS wrote both fiction and nonfiction set in Venice. He went there as U.S. consul in 1861 and immediately fell in love with the city. Edith Wharton visited Venice years later and wrote about it, as did Henry James. Isabella Stewart Gardner, who gave Boston a museum devoted largely to the Italian Renaissance, went back to Venice again and again.

Where writers and patrons went, artists followed. The galaxy of painters who took Venice as a subject during America’s Gilded Age includes not only Thomas Moran but also James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase, Maurice Prendergast, and many less celebrated figures.

 

The city’s beauty was an attraction in itself. And, of course, Venice had a magnificent artistic heritage. During the High Renaissance it was the home of such painters as Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. By the eighteenth century the city had declined from her former eminence as a maritime and commercial power; the rest of the world perceived Venice as being devoted to luxury and political corruption. The paintings of Canaletto and Guardi, popular with English travelers making the Grand Tour, appeared to sum up a city whose splendid architecture could hardly conceal her physical and spiritual decay.

Venice offered Americans a lesson in the decline of a republic whose citizens lose their moral fiber.

Canaletto and Guardi had painted a Venice that still cherished its pageantry, its intrigues, and its sense of independence. When French troops occupied the city in 1797, it became apparent to the Venetians themselves that the carnival was over. By the time American painters and writers arrived in numbers great enough to make the experience of Venice part of our social history, the city presented an inescapable contrast between the wretchedness of the people and the ancient splendor of the setting in which they lived.

FRANCIS HOPKINSON SMITH , an artist who also wrote travel books, exemplified the American attitude toward the Venetian people in this description of a woman: “Such a vision of beauty! Such a wealth of purple—grape purple—black hair; such luminous black eyes, real gazelle’s, soft and velvety; so exquisitely graceful, so charming and naive; so unkempt,—so ragged,—so entirely unlaundered, unscrubbed, and slovenly!”

For an American this was not merely an observation; it was a warning as well. At a time when Europe was ruled by princes of church and state, Venice had been a republic, like the United States, and one that made its money from banking, shipping, and foreign trade. Like the United States, Venice had offered freedom of speech and inquiry and had become a haven for talented exiles.

All in all, Venice ought to have been a model of what America could hope to become. But liberty had turned to license, and the mercantile spirit had become simple venality. By the time Americans came to admire the ruins, Venice seemed to be a lesson in what can become of a commercial republic whose citizens lose their moral fiber.

For good or ill, it was clearly different from our own young and vigorous nation. Howells wrote, “I grew early into sympathy and friendship with Venice, and being newly from a land where every thing, morally and materially, was in good repair, I rioted sentimentally on the picturesque ruin, the pleasant discomfort and hopelessness of every thing about me here.” Tintoretto and Veronese had used Venice as a backdrop for purposeful human activity. Canaletto gave a precise, draftsmanly view of the city’s architectural splendors, while reducing its inhabitants to vague indications. But Moran, Whistler, and many other American artists were less interested in architectural splendor.