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Queen City of the Adriatic and an artist haunt for centuries. Venice, Italy is one of the preeminent tourist destinations of the world with an estimate 18 million visitors a year based upon 50,000 per day.

 Its' discovery as artistic subject matter date to Giovanni Antonio Canal, Canaletto (1697-1768) in the early 18th century. By the end of the 18th century as Revolutionary France looked to bring Madam Guillotine, Britain and the Royal Navy were seen as potential saviors, and while Venice fell to the French, ending the city's long run as an independent Republic, it was noticed by English travelers Lord Byron then Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). However story of Venice becoming huge in tourism and an artist haunt really begins with the arrival of the Impressionists and one certain American, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. He was a quarrelsome sort who had to leave his previously luxurious confines in London after the costs of a famous libel suit against John Ruskin did not yield the costs required to file the suit, thus a commission to produce twelve etching of Venice arrived at a fortuitous moment

Once in Venice Whistler rediscovered his American compatriots which included a very young painter named John Singer Sargent. This interlude obviously agreed with him as what was to be three months stretched into over a year. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler finished over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, some watercolors, and over 100 pastels. In his coice of subject matter Whistler influenced a whole generation of American Impressionists including Frank Duveneck, Robert Blum and Theodore Robinson. 

Venice’s mysterious elegance draped in a humid atmosphere fit Whistler’s painterly sense of suggestion. He disliked academic brushwork and abhored precise representation, he opted for mood and atmosphere and sought to express beauty by line, color, and arrangement in his compositions. Fascinated by the print art of a newly opened up Japan, as were many of his generation, Whistler used flattened pictorial space to choreograph subtle arrangements of color and shape.

Once back in London the work had atypical results for an artist who had been mired in a commercial slump, Whistler quipped, "They are not as good as I supposed. They are selling!"

01whistler nocturne in blue and silver the lagoon veniceJames Abbot Macneil Whistler (1834-1903), Nocturne in Blue and Silver,  the Lagoon Venice, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

After Whistler departed, a short while thereafter in 1881 and probably at the urging of his dealer Paul Durand Ruel, Pierre August Renoir visited Venice, The façade of the Doge’s Palace across from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore proved to be especcially popular with the artis, Renoir joked that “there were at least six of us queuing up to paint it." The high keyed palette of Renoirs Venice paintings enraged critics when the works were exhibited in the Impressionist exhibition of 1882. Like the Whistler works these too sold well.

02Renoir The Piazza San Marco VenicePierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), The Piazza San Marco Venice, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota

03renoir venicePierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Grand Canal, Venice, 1881, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

04Renoir 044 A Gondola on the Grand Canal VenicePierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), A Gondola on the Grand Canal Venice

05renoir venice doges palacePierre August Renoir, Venice, The Doges palace, 1881, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA

Renoir's compatriot, Claude Monet did not visit the islands until 1908. Ever the homebody he was filled with reluctance at leaving his familiar Giverney. Once in italy he produced thirty seven works. They remain among his most popular paintings to this day. Thanks to his wife Alice Monet, all the details of the Italian trip survive, he wrote daily to her daughter Germaine Salerou. This correspondence was published in 1986 by Germaine Salerou's grandson (Philippe Piguet, Monet et Venise, published by Herscher). First of all, Monet and his wife stayed in the Barbaro Palace on the Grand Canal. By then consumed by the mental disciplines of his hours of the day canvases, the artists timetable was decided by the passage of the sun: from 8 a.m. at the first motif, San Giorgio Maggiore, facing St Mark's Square. At ten in St Mark's Square, facing San Giorgio. After lunch, Monet worked on the steps of the Palazzo Barbaro, painting the Palazzo da Mula. At the end of the day, Monet treated himself and Alice to a sunset gondola ride. They were back home by 7 p.m.

After their host Mary Hunter left, the Monets shifted quarters to the Grand Hotel Britannia, where Monet had "begun to paint marvelous things" under his wife's admiring eyes. Full of enthusiasm thanks to the fine weather, he started new canvases every day.  In the morning, the timetable did not change; in the afternoon, Monet painted "on the canal", and after that through the hotel window. "The view out of our window is marvelous. You couldn't dream of anything more beautiful and it is all for Monet", Alice wrote her daughter. The Monets appreciated the comfort of the hotel and its "electric lighting. It's magic! Monet can see his canvases - it is delicious and makes you wish you had it at home". As a result of this experience they had electricity installed in Giverny upon their return. Only cold made Monet give up, They left on December 7, ten weeks after their arrival, never to return. His wife Alice's health began to fail shortly thereafter, she died in 1911.

06claudeMonet DogesPalaceClaude Monet (1840-1926), Doges Palace, 1908, Brooklyn Museum, NY

07Monet Palazzo da Mula in Venice 1908Claude Monet (1840-1926), Palazzo da Mula in Venice 1908, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

08Claude monet The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore VeniceClaude Monet (1840-1926), The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore Venice, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana

09monetClaude Monet (1840-1926), Grand Canal Venice, 1908, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA

10Claude Monet Saint Georges majeur au crépusculeClaude Monet (1840-1926), Saint Georges Majeur au Crépuscule, 1908, National Museum, Cardiff, Wales, UK

 Born abroad to expatriate American parents, Sargent rarely spent much time in his native land instead he readily found a life as an artist in Italy, France, and Great Britain where he was regarded as the finest British portrait artist of Edwardian Society. As a child he lived in Florence, italy and received his first instruction there before taking classes in the atelliers of Paris where he was quickly recognized as Carolus Duran's foremost student. At the age of twenty one he was exhibiting at the Paris Salon, and by 1881, a mere twenty five years old he met Whistler in Venice. Evidently what Sargent produced there, including a Street in Venice, he thought well of ,for he exhibited these works at the Société Internationale des Peintres et Sculpteurs, Première Exposition, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1882-1883, no. 99, as Une Rue à Venise.

 Painted around the same time, A Venetian Interior reveals the influence of then companion James Whistler, not only for the working class subject matter but the subtle use of ambient light where a silvery gray predominates, like Venice Street, A Venetian Interior was exhibited in Paris at the Société Internationale des Peintres et Sculpteurs.

11Sargent Street in Venice NGAJohn Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Street in Venice, 1882, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

12sargent1955 580John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Venetian Interior, 1880-1882, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

 Sargents ascent in the art world continued after his first Venice trip as it included painting the scandelous MadamX, which forced his relocation from France to Britain, then in 1888 he painted with Monet as he struggled to understand the pure Impressionist aesthetic which requitred the color b;lack to be omitted. Apparently Monet and Renoir advocated hues of the sky instead of black. This took Sargent some time to assimilate, and is really only seen in his watercolors of sunnier climates like Venice, where he returned in 1902, and returned annually throughl 1913. It must be presumed that the outbreak of World War One just across the Adriatic the following year of 1914 caused that change in plans.


John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Rio dell Angelo (1902)

14sargent Festa della RegataJohn Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Festa della Regatta

 An early associate of the Duveneck Boys, visitors to venice in the 1870's, William Merritt Chase was the leading art teacher in the United States of his generation, and while being a Yank meant fewer sales than the exotic foreign based expatriates Whistler, Cassat and Sargent to name a few, Chase was able to explore Italy leading large groups of students in the early 1900s. By 1907 he purchased a Villa near Florence. After working as a teacher for many years, of travel he was said to have remarked, "My God I would rather go to Europe instead of Heaven!" 

15 Chase after the rainWilliam Merritt Chase (1849-1916), After the Rain, 1913

Born in Newfoundland and raised in South Boston, Prendergast studied in Paris from 1891 to 1895, at the Académie Colarossi with Courtois and Benjamin-Constant. During his time in Paris, he met the Canadian painter James Morrice, who introduced him to English avant-garde artists Walter Sickert, pupils and admirers of James McNeill Whistler. He came home from France in 1895, but returned to europe with a trip[ to Venice in 1898, which many consider to be his finest work. Prendergast by his choice of subject matter, well dressed tourists in Venice,  presented a view of Italy that was informed by sophisticated Parisian trends but did not lose his strong American accent—an accent that would come to dominate international discourse in the twentieth century.

16prendergastvenice 1898Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858-1924), Venice 1898, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine, The Lunder Collection

17prendergast Levy Canal Venice 1898Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858-1924), Grand Canal, Venice, 1898

18prendergastpiazzastmarks1899Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858-1924), Piazza, St. Marks, 1899

19prendergast st mark s venice 1898Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858-1924), St Marks, Venice 1898

The German born Sickert is best known for his association with James Whistler in London for whom he worked as an apprentice on the Venetian prints and later for his Jack the Ripper Series of Paintings which lead some to suspect the artist was the legendary figure who stalked the nights of Victorian London. Between 1894 and 1903 Sickert visited Venice annually.

20sickert the dogana and santa maria della saluteWalter Sickert (1860-1942), The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute



About the Author

Robert Alexander Boyle

Robert Alexander Boyle

 Alexander Boyle is a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, CT where he majored in History. Prior to graduation he co-authored the seminal book Acid Rain in 1983. Alex has worked for the Metropo...