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Painted On Water

July 2024
6min read

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.

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.

MORAN WAS FOLLOWING the example of J.M. W. Turner, the English artist whose atmospheric style had earlier influenced the American’s paintings of the Far West. If one could learn to paint the Rockies from Turner, how much more directly could one learn to paint the Grand Canal in Venice from an artist who had done it half a century before. Moran duly went abroad and visited Venice in 1886 and 1890. He was so taken with gondolas that he bought an especially ornate one—said to have belonged to Robert Browning—and brought it back to Long Island. From his studio in East Hampton issued a steady and commercially successful output of Venetian scenes; Moran exhibited one at the National Academy of Design as late as 1922.

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.

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.


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