JOHN SINGER SARGENT was the most popular portrait painter of his day, but the tedium of the work often oppressed him. In letters to friends, he liked to mock his lucrative success in what he called “paughtraits.” He found it a nuisance “to entertain the sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched.” When he took time off from the portraits, he would say, “No more mugs!”
Accompanied by friends and family, and armed with oils and watercolors, he would leave his London studio every year for a long vacation, usually to the Alps in the summer and then south to Venice in the fall. Born in Italy to American parents, he knew Venice well, even before he achieved fame as a portraitist. For more than 30 years, from 1880 onward, he painted a wonderful array of street scenes, landscapes and seascapes in Venice, a side of his work little noticed by the high society in Britain and America that paid huge fees for the privilege of sitting for him.
A selection of that side of his work, more than 50 oil paintings and watercolors, is now on display in the city itself. The show, “Sargent and Venice,” opened at the Adelson Galleries in New York earlier this year before moving to the Correr Museum just off St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Its tour will end there Sept. 30.
The exhibition has an unusual origin. For several years, Warren Adelson, the president of Adelson Galleries, has been helping coauthors Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray write their multivolume catalog describing every painting made by Sargent, in chronological order. During their discussions, the trio lamented the fact that Sargent’s Venetian paintings were almost lost in such a catalog because they were not painted during one period but were sprinkled throughout his career.
So, Adelson and the others decided to write a separate book, “Sargent’s Venice,” on the Venetian paintings and watercolors. The idea for an exhibition stemmed naturally from the book, and Venetian officials accepted the proposal with great enthusiasm. In fact, they told Adelson there had never been a Sargent show of any kind in Venice.
“All our jaws dropped when they said that,” Adelson recalls. “How could that be? But it was.”
Sargent’s Venetian paintings were created in two main phases. In 1880, he decided to rent space in Venice for a studio so he could paint scenes of city life. He was only 24 then, but he had already attracted notice in the competition of the annual Paris Salon. And he was looked on as a star pupil of the portrait painter Carolus-Duran in Paris.
There is some speculation that he was trying to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot James McNeill Whistler, who had already painted scenes of Venetian street life. Whistler and Sargent, in fact, were in the city at the same time, but there is no hard evidence they met.
Street scenes unfold
EACH of the early Venetian paintings hints at a story. In “Street in Venice” (painted around 1882 and lent to the show by the National Gallery of Art in Washington), a young lady, warmed by a long woolen shawl, walks by two young men in cloaks conversing in the shadows of a narrow street. One man stops to ogle the woman, but she keeps walking by, kicking the hems of her dress upward, perhaps in defiance.
A second painting, “The Sulphur Match” (painted in 1882 and lent by private collectors Marie and Hugh Halff Jr.), is infused with blatant sexuality. While her dark paramour lights his cigarette with a match, a young woman in white leans back wantonly in her chair, exposing her ankles. As Adelson puts it in the book “Sargent’s Venice,” the show of ankles “was considered a risque glimpse of anatomy in the nineteenth century.”
Although he exhibited early Venetian paintings such as these in shows in Paris and London, Sargent wisely kept them out of the Paris Salon, regarding them as too radical and controversial for that competition.
The other major phase of Venetian paintings and watercolors came in later years during his delightful breaks from the routine of portrait painting in London. Sargent, a bachelor, would assemble a retinue of friends and family members for the annual holiday. He laid down a simple rule: There would be no lazing around. He looked on the vacations as enjoyable, artistic exercises and expected everyone to take part. All participants had to paint or model or carry supplies. His artist friends Wilfrid and Jane de Glehn joined him for several trips, and Jane can be spotted posing as a Venetian lady in several paintings in the show.
For the most part, Sargent assumed the vantage of a tourist admiring the great antique buildings alongside the canals of the city. Gondolas took him and his companions up and down the waters as he sketched and colored. But the results were unlike the usual postcard scenes.
He was not interested in panoramic views of the buildings. Instead, he concentrated on the ways the water lapped the ground floor of the structures and how sunlight played with the stonework of the facades. He was as fastidious about the texture and feel of stone in these works as he was about the texture and feel of clothing in his great portraits. His focus was so narrow that it is sometimes difficult to make out which building he pictured.
Much of the work was in watercolor. A good example is “On the Steps of the Salute” (completed around 1904 and lent to the show from an unnamed private collection). The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, a 17th century Baroque building with a grand dome, guards the entrance to the Grand Canal. In this watercolor, Sargent ignores the dome and concentrates instead on the busy docking area as gondolas carry food and other supplies to the steps of the church.
The Venetian structures sometimes seem to have incredible movement. In the oil painting “Corner of the Church of San Stae” (painted around 1913 and also owned by an anonymous collector), Sargent, again from the vantage of a gondola, focuses on how the massive and ornate body of the baroque church crushes its neighbor, the small red-painted headquarters of a 17th century guild.
A few works in the exhibition can neither be classified as Sargent’s early scenes of city life nor his later sketches of monuments from the vantage of a gondola. The best known of these special works is “An Interior in Venice” (painted in 1898 and lent to the show by the Royal Academy of Arts in London). During his visits to Venice, Sargent liked to stay at the Palazzo Barbaro, the sumptuous palace on the Grand Canal owned by his distant cousins Daniel and Ariana Curtis. Sargent gave the Curtises this painting as a gesture of thanks for their hospitality, but they rejected it.
The painting depicts the elegant grand salon of the palace with the Curtises in the foreground and their son Ralph, an artist and close friend of Sargent, and his wife, Lisa, taking tea in the background. Novelist Henry James, a frequent guest of the Curtises, told them that he “absolutely and unreservedly adored” the painting and that there were few Sargents he “ever craved more to possess.” But Ariana thought that her likeness was not flattering and that the informal pose of her son Ralph was indecorous. After she returned the painting, Sargent presented it to the Royal Academy of Arts. Ever since, the public has tended to share James’ enthusiasm far more than Ariana Curtis’ disdain.