Painted On Water

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Sargent’s watercolors of Venetian architecture seem equally unconcerned with the expectations of any hypothetical viewer. When he chose a famous building as his subject, he used an odd angle or a close-up view, entirely avoiding the conventional flattery of the great that his portrait sitters demanded. In general, Sargent’s pictures of Venice were not exhibited until after his death, and they constitute a freer and more innovative body of work than his reputation as an artist of fashion might lead us to anticipate.

THE AMERICAN ARTISTS in Venice were transitional figures. Their work stands somewhere between the polished, often lifeless, academicism of the nineteenth century and the deliberate shock and abrasiveness of more recent art. In a modern perspective, the Venice of Howells and James and of Whistler and Sargent can be seen as part of a general movement away from idealized beauty and noble thought as subjects for art, whether literary or visual. In an age far more diminished and endangered than that of Whistler and Sargent, it can be pleasant as well as instructive to look back to a gentler kind of modernism.