Little Giovanni Antonio Canal – “Canaletto”

Canaletto, Venice, Google Cultural Institute
Bucentaur’s return to the pier by the Palazzo Ducale

(click here to see this painting in very high resolution thanks to the Google Cultural Institute)

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, was the supreme master of vedute, the painted or drawn views which reached the peak of their popularity in the eighteenth century.  Born to a family of theatrical scene-painters, Canaletto depicted his native Venice as an atmospheric backdrop to a colourful cast of merchants, ambassadors and seafarers, and his portraits of the great city, La Serenissima, have evoked its charm for over two hundred years.

Canaletto, London, Lord Mayor's, Westminster Bridge
London: Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayor’s Day

And if the barge looks familiar …

barge, Thames, Queen's
“Gloriana” The Queen’s Row Barge

… that’s because we’re still using them.  This one will start this year’s Lord Mayor’s Show by carrying the new Lord Mayor from Westminster to St Katherine’s dock.

Little is known of Canaletto’s early apprenticeship, although by 1720 he was entered as a member of the Venetian painter’s guild; and by this time he had already visited Rome.  From the first documented commission, four views for Stefano Conti of Lucca, the artist’s pristine treatment of the architecture and detail and his strong contrasts of light and shade were in evidence.  His work was especially prized by foreign visitors on the Grand Tour (the original, nothing to do with Jeremy Clarkson) – around the centres of classical and Renaissance civilization – who ordered paintings as souvenirs of their travels.  Prominent among these patrons were member of the English aristocracy, and among others Canaletto collaborated with the enterprising Owen McSwiney, who secured the interest of the Duke of Richmond, and the collector and agent Joseph Smith.

Canaletto, Venice, stonemason
The Stonemason’s Yard, painted 1726 – 30

Canaletto paid an extended visit to England between 1746 and 1756, where he produced compelling views of the Thames and its skyline, and capriccios or architectural fantasies.  Surprisingly he found it difficult to secure an equivalent reputation in England, where it was even alleged that he was “not the veritable Canalleti (sic) of Venice”.  For an unusual but fascinating view of his English period read this recent abstract “Canaletto’s Colours” from British Art Studies.  To counter these accusations the artist invited doubters to inspect his painting of St. James’s Park for reassurance.  Canaletto’s sojourn abroad eventually cast its influence on English topographical painters, and many private collection still hold examples of this work.

Canaletto’s paintings are a byword for clarity and realism, achieved in part by his occasional use of the camera obscura device, and in part by his brilliant shorthand delineation of figures.  Sadly, when he died in 1768 he left almost nothing; twenty-eight unsold paintings, a single bed, two bed covers and, as the executor of his will described them, “some old cloths.”  In contrast, the record price paid at auction for a Canaletto is £18.6 million for “View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto”, set at Sotheby’s in London in July 2005.

A Day in Venice – By New Venetian Resident and AHA Alum, Anna Fothergill

As part of my studies in History of Art at the University of Warwick, there comes the opportunity to spend the autumn term of my third year in one of the greatest, and most unique, artistic centres of the world. This term abroad is the reason I choose Warwick and two years have flown by. I am now officially living and working in Venice for ten weeks and of course this fantastic and rare chance had to be documented for AHA readers.

Sunset over Santa Maria de Salute - Own photo

I have survived a full week in this watery paradise and I can safely say there is no fear I will run out of things to do, nor will I ever get bored of the stunning canal views over every bridge. Over the next ten week I hope to share some of the beauty of the city, the best places to eat and drink and some of the oddities that are only noticed one you live in a place.

Typically, a day might start by being woken up by the clanging of bells across the city (at first rather magical, but the midnight bell tolls are proving irritating). Since I am up, there is the need for coffee, so I stroll sleepily down the road, over the canal to my local coffee bar, where I use my limited (but improving) Italian to ask for a caffe latte. In true Italian fashion, I stand at the bar sipping away, enjoying the rapid chatting around me, a chorus of “Ciao”’s and “Buongiorno”’s. Once I have fuelled up on coffee, its time to get ready for the day.

Own Photo
A morning necessity - Own photo

With some free time in the morning, it is time for touristing. When I initially arrived, I wanted to go and see and do everything in the first week. I have decided to pace myself a bit more, once the full realisation that I am here for ten weeks sunk in. So I allow myself to get a bit lost in the crowds and find new routes. Despite being October, it is really warm and sunny here and there are still hundreds of tourist flooding in everyday. One quickly learns the winding back streets and shortcuts of Venice, and in fact the best shops, restaurants and friendliest people are often found off the beaten track.

Being a History of Art student, naturally I hit the galleries, the Guggenheim in particular. It has been one of my favourite galleries since visiting with AHA, due to the layout as well as the content, and a free day can easily be spent there admiring Peggy Guggenheim’s extensive collection.

Guggenheim - Own photos

In the afternoon, I usually have seminars and this particular aspect of being here certainly bring back memories of my AHA tour. We have seminars on site, awkwardly and eagerly writing down information whilst standing in front of our topic. The experience of seeing the live work as it is explained to you is a far more engaging method than powerpoint and a classroom and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to experience it again.

Evening approaches and life slows down a bit. From about 4 o’clock onwards, people will be sitting in cafes with a spritz aperol and bruschettas, chatting and taking it easy. So of course I join in, having always a weakness for prosecco. This is a wonderful time of day.

Aperitifs - Own Photo

After an aperitif and a bowl of pasta for dinner, it is an easy walk to Campo Margherita, the resident student piazza, where the is prosecco is cheap, the company great and the pizza slices substantial. Usually the rest of the Warwick course end up here for a few laughs and catch up about what they have discovered in Venice that day. A great place to get to know the Venice students and meet the locals before heading home to bed, eagerly to bring on the next day in Venezia.

Look out for more blogs about Anna in Venice soon.

 

 

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News from the field! A mini photo blog from AHA Northern II course student Kyle Canter

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice. AHA Tutor Richard Stemp reviews what ‘The Times’ has called the must-see exhibition of the year and concludes – you must see it!

What’s in a name? Call him Paolo Spezapreda, Paolo Bazaro or Paolo Caliari, Paolo Veronese will always be among the greats, and has finally been put into the spotlight at the National Gallery.

Paolo Veronese has his name because he was, quite simply, the best artist ever to come out of his hometown, Verona. Although he moved to Venice more-or-less full time at the age of 27 in 1555, and instantly entered the top ranks of the Venetian art élite, his work was grounded in his youth and formation in the mainland city.

The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (modello for the Pala Bevilacqua Lazise), about 1546

Born in 1528 into family of stonecutters, Paolo may have initially trained in the family business with his father, but by the age of 13 he was already apprenticed to Antonio Badile, a competent but uninspiring artist. He also seems to have worked alongside Giovanni Battista Caroto, but not for long: he was established as an independent master in his own right by the age of 18. In 1553 he signed himself ‘Paolo Spezapreda’ – Paul the Stonecutter – but within two years he was calling himself ‘Paolo Caliari from Verona’. Caliari wasn’t even his father’s name. His father, Gabriele Bazaro, married a girl called Caterina, some six years his senior. And when you’re only 14 that’s a big difference. Maybe they married because she was already pregnant. But then her parents never married: her father was an aristocrat by the name of Caliari, and by choosing the name of his illegitimate mother’s father Paolo implied he was going up in the world, no longer a humble stonecutter, but an artist with a high-class background. Nevertheless, in Venice he must have stood out from the Venetian artists and became known, quite simply, as Paolo Veronese.

 

The earliest known paintings by him are both in the National Gallery’s splendid exhibition. Both are painted in oil on paper, later mounted on canvas, and both show his origins clearly. They are studies for two works which are lost – one completely, and one only practically, as the full-scale version of the Bevilacqua-Lazise altarpiece survives, but is highly damaged and badly over-painted. The little modello – probably painted so the clients could see what they were getting – is a better representation of what was intended. The architectural setting, with the Virgin and Child enthroned to the side of a marble altar, shows the influence of Titian – via Antonio Badile – but also the architectural style of Michele Sanmicheli, the leading architect of Vicenza at the time. Paolo’s father probably worked for him. As a boy, Paolo may have done so too.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, about 1548

By the age of 20 he was apparently fully formed. What first strikes you about The Conversion of Mary Magdalene is the brilliance of its colours – chopping from sky blue to rose, emerald to primrose and a daring combination of white and vermillion, like a Bridget Riley inhabited by people. The story, probably derived from a life of Christ written by Pietro Aretino, shows Mary Magdalene falling to her knees with shame as she first beholds Jesus, and immediately removing her jewelry, the outward sign of her inner vice. Her sister Martha holds her hand and points the way, from the shadow into which she has subsided to the brilliant light of Christ. This is where we first see a compositional tendency which recurs throughout Veronese’s oeuvre: the protagonist is at the bottom, in the shade, and partly hidden by the other characters – and yet we always know who is important, as Veronese can always lead our eye in the right direction.

The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine, about 1565-70

He excels at the depiction of religious subject matter, notably in the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and The Martyrdom of St George in the third and fourth rooms of the exhibition respectively. Both are triumphs for the National Gallery. The former has never left Venice (painted for the Church of Santa Caterina, it now resides in the Accademia, the main art gallery there), while the latter has only left the church in Verona for which it was painted once before – when Napoleon stole it at the end of the 18th Century. Both are sublimely coloured and beautifully composed. St Catherine is arrayed in the finest of Venetians fabrics, a white, blue and gold brocade, and is about to be enveloped in a voluminous white cloth-of-gold cape by one of the attendant angels. A woman behind raised her arms high and gazes to heaven, her hands framing the faces of the Virgin and the Saint and bringing them together in a form of ecstatic union. In the next room of the exhibition, St George, brought low, accepts his immanent death while looking up at the figure of Hope, who looks to the Virgin and Child,  pleading, with her companions Faith and Charity, on his behalf. The interlocking gazes and gestures of the celestial gathering lead our eye around the upper half of the painting, while the red flag of the Romans – inscribed with the letters SPQR (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) cuts like a knife from the top left corner and tears our eyes down to the brilliant vermillion of George’s hose.

Mars and Venus united by Love about 1570-5

If he excels with the religious, he excites with myth. The National Gallery’s own Allegories of Love look superb in what was their long-time setting, where they are reunited with a Mars and Venus that they haven’t seen for three hundred years when they were all part of the collection of the Hapsburgs in Prague. A cheeky and delicate version of The Rape of Europa shows the heroine tentatively mounting a snow-white bull, not knowing it to be Jupiter in disguise. He tenderly nuzzles her sandalled feet, before carrying her off, in a background scene, across the lapping waves and far across the sea. A regretful heifer peers longingly into the distance, apparently regretting that she didn’t get in on the action.

The Rape of Europa

If the mature paintings look as if they are bathed in sunlight, the last works have something of the night about them, they seem to be moonlit, and you get the feeling that without Veronese’s exploration of chiaroscuro Caravaggio’s career might not have been possible. The story of Lucretia is dark in every way. Raped, she kills herself rather than suffer the shame, and plunges a dagger into her breast through the cloth with which she is so desperately trying to maintain her dignity.  Elsewhere in this final room a heroic Perseus plummets through the air, a secular angel rescuing a gymnastic Andromeda from the most energetic of sea monsters, while two late portraits, in tranquil mode, show that Veronese perfected his skills depicting character and surface like no other. The last painting in the exhibition is the last he ever painted, The Conversion of St Pantalon, commissioned for the high altar of eponymous Venetian church by the Parish Priest, Bartolomeo Borghi. No ideal palaces here, no soaring classical columns, but a seedy Venetian backstreet in which the Saint cures a boy bitten by a snake with the power of prayer alone. Borghi himself plays a minor role, supporting the body of the dead child before he is resuscitated. As so often in Veronese’s work the patron takes part in the religious drama: throughout the exhibition any slightly suspect characters photo-bombing the holy scene are probably portraits of the patrons.

The Agony in the Garden

This may be the last painting, but as you go, stop and contemplate The Agony in the Garden. Christ’s traditional vigil has worn him down, and while Peter, James and John sleep securely in the background, Jesus has collapsed in the arms of a consoling angel, who is left with the task of looking up to Heaven and pleading for forbearance. The light streaming from on high trickles like liquid gold down the angel’s violet robe, and Christ’s limbs hang heavy, forming a counterpoint with the angel’s legs and framed by the blue and red of his own robes, as if blood and water flow mingled down. It is an exquisite image: quiet, considered, contemplative, sublime.

 

The exhibition has 50 paintings by this great master, from the earliest known works, to the last one he painted. It’s the first exhibition devoted to him in Britain, and the size and scale of the paintings mean that the National Gallery has moved some of its permanent collection out of the way so that Veronese’s works can enjoy the space and natural daylight of the main floor. The colours shine gloriously, the dramatic compositions have space to breathe, and some of the paintings can be examined up close for the first time ever. It really is the exhibition you should be going to see – and if you can conspire to see it when the sun is shining, so much the better.

 

Why a Gap Year? AHA alum and Berkeley student Lucy Sundelson on what the experience meant for her

On the day I left for my gap year trip with Art History Abroad, I felt terrified.  I cried while I sat in the terminal, waiting to board my flight.  I was on my way to Italy, and for the first time in my life, I was on my own.

I had been accepted to UC Berkeley for the spring semester, rather than the fall, when my sister and all my friends would be starting.   Gap years are common in Europe, but not many American students take one.  I was worried.  What would I be missing?  Would I feel left behind?

As soon as I arrived in Italy, however, I knew that my time there would give me just as much as a semester of college, if not more.  My gap year course was my first chance to see the world as an adult.  It would teach me to make friends with people from across the world, to take care of myself, and to discover new passions. Every day felt like an adventure, as we ate, laughed, and learned our way through a dozen Italian cities, and I felt more independent and excited than I ever did in high school. I learned how to take risks: to get lost in the alleys of Venice, to dance in a nightclub, to sit in front of a monument or a sculpture and try to sketch it, despite the belief that I had absolutely no artistic ability.

I think it’s exciting that more American students are now taking gap years. College has been challenging and exhilarating, but I know that my experience with AHA is the reason I’m getting so much out of it. On the trip, I began to discover a new, independent identity—an identity I continue to explore in college. When I started at Berkeley, I already knew how to take care of myself and how to challenge myself with new experiences. My Italian journey is the reason I’ve been able to make so many friends in college, and it’s the reason I’m studying Urban Design. I’ve found the perfect niche in a place I never expected to feel so comfortable. I’ll remember my trip as not only one of the most exciting experiences of my life, but as one that helped me learn who I am and what I can do.

For more thoughts on taking a Gap Year and its benefits, see this article by founder of the AGA (American Gap Association) Ethan Knight.

http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11231428.htm

 

Coppola-coloured: is there really so much difference between film and painting? AHA alum Julia Turner explores

If Sofia Coppola were a Renaissance painter, she would be Titian. Or maybe Tintoretto:  two painters whose mastery of colour and light were crucial to their artistic output. Their approach to painting represented the Venetian school’s insistence that colorito (colour), rather than Florentine disegno (drawing), was the key to recreating the essence of nature. Impossible though it may be, therefore, I think that if the two men were to watch Coppola’s Marie Antoinette over a bowl of pop-corn, they would nod in approval at her pistachio greens, duck egg blues, and accents of deep crimson and plum.

Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-1559

 

Tintoretto, St Mark Working Many Miracles, 1562-1566

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, 2006

Coppola’s debut feature film, The Virgin Suicides, paid equal attention to production design and light in creating a sense of theatricality, not dissimilar to Tim Walker’s fantastical photographs.

Tim Walker, Lily Cole, for Vogue UK, 2010

 

Still from Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, 1999

Another director who I love for his use of colour is Wes Anderson. His use of paint-box colours make his works instantly recognisable. In fact, Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic style inspired artist Beth Matthews to produce her own work, the Wes Anderson Film Colour Palette, in which she pulled together the colour treatments used across six of his feature films.

Poster Image for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, 2012

That said, Coppola’s films, also capture design or ‘disegno’. Since directors are able to use a camera to capture nature directly, they arguably have the ‘design’ box automatically checked before they even begin. What’s more, the photographic aspect of cinema can provide an opportunity for directors to focus especially on the composition of their frames. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles used monochrome to create kaleidoscopic, architectural shots that could stand alone as striking photographs.

Still from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane

On the other hand, through his symmetrical compositions Anderson’s use of colour becomes most evident and most efficient in balancing his frames. Similarly, both colour and design are put to work in Somewhere, Coppola’s meandering portrait of a famous actor living in the Chateau Marmont, whose life happens to him rather than the other way around. Curved and straight lines, repeating patterns, and clean-fishbowl-hues build up a considered portrayal of a place that almost feels like the set of a movie itself: somewhere with lots of charm but no personality.

Still from Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited, 2007
Still from Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, 2006

I suppose in this way, film could resolve another Renaissance debate: whether painting or sculpture is the better art form. Michelangelo was able to master both and this is one of the reasons he was so celebrated. Not only can film offer both colour and a three-dimensional perspective on the figures, but it can go one step further, by introducing soundtrack and dialogue to flesh out the characters and add texture and tone to the piece such as with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony capturing the sweeping majesty of Tadzio’s beauty and von Aschenbach’s loneliness in Visconti’s Death in Venice or French rock band Phoenix’s cool nonchalance pervading Coppola’s Somewhere.

Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Coppola, Somewhere, 2010
Still from Visconti's Death in Venice, 1971

So really, the medium that is most associated with modernity – the moving image of the Nineteenth Century, the talkies of the 1930s, and the music videos and blockbusters that dominate youtube and facebook feeds today – are actually involved in fulfilling a very traditional aim:

to capture the spirit, the sense, the essence of a thought, a feeling or a truth.

 

Notes from Venice: A summer student talks about one leg of the Northern II trip

My trip to Venice with Art History Abroad was glorious! The location of the hotel introduced me to a new and exciting area of Venice with which I was unfamiliar, allowing me to become delightfully lost in Venice’s intimate streets. For a large part of the group the aim was to become lost: you can only really appreciate Venice when you are in a state of mild desperation when the map has abandoned you and your bearings have failed.

 

Days in Venice were fascinating, visiting various Churches that boasted works by artists such as Titian, Bellini and Carpaccio. One of my favourite afternoons in Venice was my visit to the Accademia. The display of Gothic art in contrast to the later developed Renaissance Art was remarkable and with the help of the tutors this transition in art was explained effortlessly. However the teaching role was not always left to the tutors: student pairs were formed with the instruction to choose a curious painting to explore in front of the rest of the group. For my pair, ‘The Crucifixion of Ten Thousand Martyrs’ by Carpaccio was sufficiently curious to allow for a thorough exploration. Despite our ignorance of the event and having little knowledge of the artist, we were able to give a short presentation on our reaction to the painting.

Our evening lecture -told with glasses of ‘fragolinos’ in hand- allowed the group to fully appreciate our day ventures by associating the transitions in the style of art with the time period.

The Venice Biennale was a delightful contrast as a display of contemporary art. Meandering around the ‘Giardini de Venezia’ was wonderful; stumbling across the various countries’ entries and enjoying the cool shade provided by the trees. The group had different interpretations to the countries’ entries, allowing for good conversation on our thoughts. Despite differing interpretations on the exhibitions, the enjoyment of the morning at the Biennale was shared between all.

 

 

Our free afternoon after the Biennale allowed the group to branch out into all parts of Venetian life: some benefited from a relaxing time at the Lido, whilst others took advantage of the current Manet expedition held at the Doge’s Palace.

One of the highlights for me was our visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum on the final day in Venice. Its location on the Grand Canal made the group green with envy and the Modern Art was quite a contrast to the works we had seen before; yet there seemed to be themes running through, as if art was cyclical in nature. I loved their decision to display Peggy Guggenheim’s works of art alongside pictures of her in the house when she lived there.

 

On our last night the tutors arranged a picnic supper on the Punta della Dogana. The view of Venice at twilight was gorgeous. It was a great time to relax and reminisce (with hints of nostalgia) on the trip so far, while also feeling excitement for the next two cities.

Everyone loved our Venice stay; how could we not? The magnificent art, the charming city, the relaxed nature of the visit and the good nature of everyone involved meant that enjoying ourselves was simply inevitable!

 

With thanks to Helen Elston for putting together her memories of Venice, Summer 2013…

A History of the Bellini: Italy in a Drink – by AHA alum Helena Roy

As summer fast approaches, (even in Britain it’s getting warmer!) and flocks of tourists depart to Italy for sun, sights and…the food, there is one drink that epitomises that Italian spirit: the Bellini.

A classic cocktail known the world over, it is one of Italy’s most popular drinks. Venetian through and through, it was invented between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani – founder of the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice (which welcomed guests such as Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart). The story goes that its unique, sunset-pink colour reminded Cipriani of the shades in his favourite paintings by 15th-century Venetian artist… Giovanni Bellini. And so the drink was christened.

A Bellini

The creation went from a seasonal delight to a year-round favourite; from a secret of Venice to a globally-known cocktail. It first found its way to Harry’s Bar in New York, and eventually its popularity spread.

The concotion is a mix of prosecco and puréed white peaches. The original recipe has a small amount of raspberry or cherry juice added, to give it that subtle rose glow. The drink is the embodiment of Italian summers – fresh, sweet, sun-ripened peaches with dry, crisp prosecco.

Looking for evidence of Cipriani’s inspiration is not difficult. A colourful example might be the Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice; or perhaps The Agony in the Garden (1465), which hangs in our own National Gallery. Bellini shaped Venetian artistic tradition with his innovative use of rich colours – using sumptuous shades and jewel-like tones. The altarpiece of San Zaccaria robes the Madonna in deep pink and sapphire tones, and The Agony in the Garden shows the very sunset/sunrise tint that inspired the celebrated cocktail.

Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice
The Agony in the Garden (1465)

Nowadays there are several variations, designed to make best use of the available ingredients. Multitudes of fruit, and prosecco or champagne are used to create new mélanges. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to use prosecco, not champagne. The latter is stronger and overpowers the delicate peach taste. You risk falling victim to adding more and more peach to find the flavour, resulting in an alcoholic fruit smoothie.

On many a menu will you find different bellinis: raspberry, passion fruit, pear, apple – even rhubarb was a recent find! But it is peach and prosecco that is the classic combination. True DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) prosecco is made in the regions that surround Venice – Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia – and is the best base.

My own memory of the best bellini wasn’t at Harry’s Bar, but on the Punta della Dogana on a humid Venetian evening, having a picnic dinner with the AHA Northern Italy trip. At the risk of making this blog post redundant, it isn’t actually the drink that matters, but the company. The Bellini: best enjoyed at sunset, in summer, and in Italy.

AHA Northern Italy Trip - Bellinis at Sunset
AHA Northern Italy Trip - The View from the Punta della Dogana
AHA Northern Italy Trip - Evening on the Punta della Dogana

With thanks to artrenewal.org, nationalgallery.org.uk and redbookmag.com for pictures.

John Singer Sargent: An interior in Venice by Andy MacKay

Born in Florence in 1856 to well-off expatriate New Englanders, John Singer Sargent grew up speaking four different languages and was schooled in the great centres of European civilisation, later going on to art school in Florence, Dresden, Berlin and Paris. Whilst studying in the studio of distinguished Third Republic portraitist Carolus-Duran in Paris, Sargent quickly found his own vibrant style and soon gained several commissions for portraits-in-oil from the French aristocracy. Handsome, intelligent, well-connected and with an already assured painterly technique, the young Sargent’s career naturally began to flourish.

John Singer Sargent, Self Portrait, 1906

 Familiar with Venice from childhood, Sargent was a regular visitor to this faded watery paradise of ruins. He often extended his trips in order to stay with distant cousins, the wealthy Bostonian Curtis family who lived on the piano nobile of the 17th century Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. Painted on the eve of the new century, An Interior in Venice (1898) is a rare ‘conversation’ piece which depicts the Curtis’ in their grand drawing room. We find the middle-aged Daniel Curtis in profile, positioned as a man of the world, reading a starched folio and yet seemingly ready to leap into action at any given moment. The middle-aged Mrs Curtis (or the “Dogaressa” as Sargent always affectionately called her) sits passively, eyes dreaming reflectively toward us – but not at us; her hands joined and resting peacefully upon her needlework. Across the room, towards the background, we see Ralph Curtis and his new American bride, Lisa De Wolfe Colt. Ralph was an elegant contemporary of Sargent’s and both young men studied at the same time under Carolus-Duran in Paris. He, with his lacquered moustache, perches upon the edge of a gilt console table, one hand upon his slender right hip, his body a distorted contrapposto hinting at the dynamic potential placed here in repose. Lisa, dressed in feminine, virginal whites and creams has just poured herself a cup of tea and cuts a newly fashionable masculine silhouette with her puffed and padded shoulders.

Sargent, An interior in Venice

An Interior in Venice possesses a vast amount of deliberately dark and indistinct space within the canvas. The architectural contours of the room itself are comprehensible only because of the timeless objects which adorn it. The past exists here, unavoidably; and for only a moment the present must submit to it. The two couples are separated here, not only generationally, but symbolically too by a significant swath of carpet whose muted tones neatly balance the Baroque exaggeration of the walls and ceiling. Apparently entirely unaware of each other, the four Curtis’ are each struck by the light of the Canal which bind one to the other. Stagey and theatrical it may be, but the painting is deeply Venetian in that the ‘narrative’ is woven together by the shimmering, generous light of the canals. What we see here is an idealised moment of family quietude marked not by the ticking of a clock but by the lapping of waves against the Palazzo walls.

The Palazzo Barbaro

Few artists are lucky enough to capture the essence of their milieu, but undoubtedly Sargent did. His work is a visual complement to the novels of his contemporary Henry James, who in fact wrote The Wings of the Dove (1902) whilst staying at the Palazzo Barbaro. Sargent’s portraits are stylish fantasies, powerful near-operatic meditations on morality and decadence and clearly evoke one of the last great moments of European confidence.