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Sargent in Venice
Having spent a better part of five months researching Venice, and trying to pull  Sargent's art together (as much as I can anyway) I am continually struck by the notion that to understand Sargent (really understand him on a deeper level) is to first fathom the whole continuum of western art. It's not a small undertaking. 

Sargent didn't paint in a vacuum, neither do most artists, but never was it more prevalent than with Sargent. I see this more and more as I study his sketches and drawings. He never struck out in uncharted waters. Everything had its' roots. Everything was solidly grounded with precedence  --  with something wonderful -- something beautiful, even if it wasn't fully understood at the time. 

He had spent his whole life traveling; and he spent his entire life studying.   He went everywhere -- practically saw everything. How many other artists of his time can we say traveled as much? were exposed to as much? had as much contact with such a wide variety of local cultures -- those varied spices that make up the delicious banquet we call the human condition? Very few.

Venice in the late 19th century was not a Garden of Eden in the conventional sense. The people were poor. Many of the stunning palaces had been in a continual decline (as had the economy) for nearly a hundred years. It had been in a malaise since the city-state fell to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. The churches (and there are many) couldn't afford the upkeep. Those colossal buildings with all that art -- the sculptures, murals, paintings which adorned everything were helplessly left decaying.  The city was nearly in ruins and the inhabitants squeezed out a living as best they could from the small trickle of new middle class tourists. But with the exception of possibly Florence, Sargent couldn't have felt closer to heaven than when he was walking the narrow streets, navigating the canals, sitting quietly in studious reverence to the art of the churches in his beloved Venice. When he paints, Sargent doesn't talk down to us. He expects us to already know the basic vocabulary of the city. We are to already know its' sense of place. 

Never in the history of civilization (if I dare be so bold) has there been a more profound, more unique, more defining sense of place than the city of Venice. A critic might say that he has missed the point. A wide audience wouldn't have that understanding to the level that Sargent demands. But much of his art in Venice (especially many of his watercolors) weren't intended for a wider audience. He never made pretensions to being another Canaletto. When you see "Base of a Palace" it's a given you are already familiar with the Grand Canal.

For John and his art, it was the beauty in the little things. He had already soaked in the wider context long ago.  In that sense, Sargent is showing us a part of Venice that few others would, nor had the desire to show. Why? Because Venice is a cornucopia of visual stimuli. It is so profound in its intensity that most are stunned by the overload. The challenge, for most, is in the comprehension of the forest, let alone take the time to soak in the simple beauty of a single leaf.

What Sargent offers us (as I've tried to rake it all together) is a pile of these muted autumn leafs, simple and beautiful. Many are not complete or whole -- only showing us parts. We are to infer the rest.

So for me, to understand his work (to the degree that I wanted to) is to understand (even if I've never been there -- no -- especially since I've never been there) this sense of place called Venice. As in all things that I've attempted to undertake, and this is no different, my drive to explain this comes from the weakness that I find in the established literature. None of it comes close. 

In fairness, it would be crazy to try. The  mountain is too high and best left to its own subject. "You just have to go there and see it yourself."  But that only eggs me on. It has been with this loving obsession  (for lack of a better phrase) and with the help of quite a few other people on the web, that I now try to convey this sense of place . . . and Sargent's art within it.

* * *

Itís not exactly clear when Sargent first went to Venice, although May 1870 is the first reference found in any Sargent biography. Two letters to his cousin Mrs. Austin in 1874, one in March and another in April, clearly show that he was already very familiar with Venice and its' paintings. He even commented on the deplorable physical condition of the ceiling of San Rocco.

With certainty it is known that John traveled back to Venice in the fall of 1880 and again in 1882 where he did a remarkable series of paintings known as his "Venetian Studies".

In September of 1880 Sargent went to Venice with his parents and sisters staying at the Hotel díItalie, just west of San Marco. From here he quickly found studio space with other artists at the Palazzo Rezzonico. In a letter of September 22, Johnís sister Emily explained their intentions.  Sargent stayed into the winter months, but it's not exactly known for how long, possibly as late as February or March, having moved to 290, Piazza San Marco, Allí Orologio next to the clock tower.

The following year he was busy with other painting projects but returned again in August of 1882. He stayed at the Palazzo Barbaro  by invitation from his friend, fellow painter, and distant cousin Ralph Curtis. The Barbaro would eventually become his home in Venice for all future stays.

It would be sixteen long years before Sargent would return to this beloved and beautiful city. The years following his Venetian Studies found Sargent wrapped up in his career. The Madame X scandal of Ď84 pushed him towards England where he eventually moved. In 1887 he received his first commission in the United States where he found his attention divided between Monet and Impressionism, and his portraits in America and England. By 1890 he had his commission to do the murals of the Boston Public Library which he dove into head first. It would be the mural commission that would briefly return Sargent back to Venice.

In '98 he traveled to Venice and stayed at the Barbaro for a month. The painting "The Pavement"seems to imply that Sargent had spent at least some time studying the mosaics in the Basilica San Marco and possibly other churches in Venice for his mural project. The previous year had seen him briefly in Sicily at the Cathedral in Palermo and in Rome at the Vatican for quick short trips to study mosaics. 

After the second installation of his Boston murals in 1903, Sargent seemed to grow restless with the inability to expand artistically with portraits and murals. In a much needed break, he took trips to Spain and Italy, visiting Venice in 1903 and 1904.  After his mother's death in '06 he would expand these yearly trips south to places like Majorca, Corfu, the Italian Alps, the Dolomites, the Tyrol, and Simplon. Most frequently he would return to his beloved Venice. During these trips he would take one or both of his sisters, nieces, friends, and travel as a family as he had done with such enjoyment as a boy.

Sargent's watercolors and oils began to be more than just studies for some future oil painting. They became works in and of themselves, even testing the waters with exhibitions of just his watercolors. The break between his former work and these new watercolors are significant in color and composition. No longer was he only interested in how the people of Venice interacted within their environment (as he had explored in his Venetian Studies), but he was now interested in the aspects of the architecture itself. For the first time he explored the more traditional beauty of the canals and the delightful play of light off the water and buildings  which many of his contemporaries had been doing for years. His paintings were done from the every-day vantage, never really taking a tourist eye.

1913 was the last year Sargent traveled to Venice. It was life events that would come between him and his most favored city. The following year would be the last of these happy yearly trips when he and his friends found themselves trapped in the Austria Tyrol at the beginning of World War I. The war years kept him from traveling except to the U.S. (even that was dangerous). In 1918 he was painting at the war's front in France, and as more mural commissions filled his orders, he spent more and more time in America. 

In 1922 his friend Ralph Curtis died which severed his link to the Palazzo Barbaro. Venice and that part of the world could never be the same for him and he would never return.

Sargent produced many hundreds of Venetian watercolors. Many of them were never signed or dated (I only have but a fraction on this site).  Keeping them all straight has been complicated and confused by the fact that one of his biographers, Charles Merrill Mount (also a watercolorist) painted many of his own Venetian watercolors in Sargent's style Ė even signing Sargent's name to some of his own paintings.

Sargent's time in Venice spans a good chunk of his life and produced some of the most remarkable paintings of his long career.  After having studied the beauty of of Venice, I can see why. 



Only a month? The term seems a bit strange since most of us would never have such luxury. But in comparison to some of his other  stays, this was relatively short.

To put it in context, however, today's average tourist visit is less than (6) six hours total -- and most (if not all) of that is at San Marco.


Subject: Any Venitian galleries displaying Sargent's work? 
From: Lee alu eck@aol.com 
Date: Mon, 7 Jul 2003

Dear Natasha--

My husband and I are traveling to Venice this fall and are wondering if any Venetian museums or galleries display Sargent's paintings of their city. We will be heading to Denver before Italy to see his exhibition there, but would also love to see it "on site."

Thanks for any information you can give us.

Lee Lueck
Overland Park, KS

From: Natasha

Off hand, I'm afraid I don't know of any public museums in Venice that have Sargent's art of the city -- or Sargent's art period. If anyone can think of anything I'm overlooking please let me know.



By: Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2004 all rights reserved
Officially created 11/8/2000
Updated 7/13/2004