- Historic Sites
Painted On Water
Turn-of-the-century American painters came to Venice for its ancient splendors and pearly light. In a few years they captured its canals, palaces, and people in a spirit of gentle modernism that looks better than ever.
June/july 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 4
Moran’s habitual way of depicting Venice, with boats and buildings and a few human figures sandwiched between vibrant expanses of sea and sky, also occurs in the work of such artists as George Loring Brown, John Ferguson Weir, and William Gedney Bunce. Their pictures are less about Venice than about the emotions that can be produced by manipulation of light, color, and atmosphere. It is a daydream of Venice rather than its three-dimensional form that we see in their work; the queen of the Adriatic is used as a reverie. By far the greatest American specialist in this indistinct and almost imaginary Venice was James McNeill Whistler.
Whistler’s sojourn in Venice produced some very fine art, but it began in desperation. In 1879, after living for years in London, Whistler found himself ruined by a combination of his own extravagance and the cost of his libel suit against John Ruskin, the leading British art critic of his day. To begin recouping his fortune, Whistler accepted a contract with London’s Fine Art Society to produce a suite of twelve etchings of Venice.
Almost as soon as he arrived, however, he became nostalgic for London. Others loved gondolas; Whistler yearned for hansom cabs. He disliked the street life of the city, and preferred to work indoors, looking out from a window, where he would be safe from the jostling of crowds.
Whistler found the city freezing—it was said to be the worst winter in thirty years—and wrote to his half-sister, Deborah Haden, in England: “There is but one thing that consoles me in my numbed state here, and that is the total darkness you seem to live in over there. Of course if things were as they ought to be. … I should be resting happily in the only city in the world fit to live in, instead of struggling in a sort of opéra comique country where the audience are absent and the season is over!”
The cold, perhaps aided by Whistler’s unhappiness, prevented him from making an early start on his etchings. For Whistler, as one of his acquaintances in Venice recalled, “there was always something still better round the corner. ” But when he finally settled down to work, he was industrious and prolific. By summer he had done more than forty etchings, in addition to a large number of pastels.
Early in 1880 Whistler fell in with a group of American art students who had come from Munich with their teacher, Frank Duveneck. Still in his early thirties, Duveneck was to become one of the most successful American painters of his day, and his students have gone down in art history as “Duveneck’s boys.” Before long Whistler had moved into the same building as Duveneck’s group; during the months to come he ate, drank, and worked with them. They provided him with a circle of admirers; another consideration must have been that one of them had an etching press Whistler could use.
Although Venice had offered him one of his greatest subjects, Whistler was eager to return to London, and he left after a year. His etchings and pastels of Venice got a mixed reception in England. Whistler had sought to avoid the most famous buildings, and often enough he chose a doorway or a window as his entire subject. When he undertook a large view of the city, he produced the same kind of blurry night scenes that had earned him Ruskin’s contempt. An unfavorable critic can be perceptive in spite of himself. The journalist Harry Quilter, one of Whistler’s most pertinacious enemies, summed up one Venetian picture as exemplifying “an art which is happier in the gloom of a doorway than in the glow of the sunshine, and turns with a pleasant blindness from whatsoever in Nature or Man is of perfect beauty or noble thought.”
Their art stands between the academicism of the nineteenth century and the shocks of the twentieth.
This was precisely Whistler’s intention, and he was far from being the only artist who came to Venice and felt moved to depict something other than nobility or perfection.
John Singer Sargent, who made himself rich as a society portraitist, went to Venice to paint back streets and ordinary people. The Venetians in those works are very far from picturesque stereotypes.