JOHN SINGER SERGENT
John Singer Sargent American (1856-1925) John Singer Sargent’s earliest views of Venice date from the summer of 1880, when the artist took a studio at the Palazzo Rezzonico and ventured out into the streets to paint. The resulting works largely comprise scenes of modern life, populated by working-class men and women idling in the narrow streets or laboring in dark interiors, rendered in a tonal palette.
Sargent returned to Venice repeatedly over the next thirty years, eventually completing over 150 views of the city in both watercolor and oil. In his later watercolors, however, Sargent abandoned the moody darkness of the early Venetian scenes, and instead created dazzling architectural views filled with color and light. Richard Ormond writes, “Romantic by temperament, increasingly inspired by the principles of classical architecture, and modern in his feeling for pictorial surface and facture, Sargent responded to the buildings of Venice in a style all his own. The majority of the studies are in watercolor, and it was his fluency and mastery of that medium that enabled him to capture the essence of form and light in works that are bold and colorful. In these years, the grand palaces and churches of the Grand Canal, the Riva, and the Zattere are painted side by side with the humbler buildings, bridges, and small squares in the network of Venice’s side canals and backwaters that Sargent explored. … People are rarer—an occasional gondolier, a boatload of tourists or locals, shadowy figures on the Riva degli Schiavoni and the Zattere.
Venice of the here and now is expressed through glancing light and rippling water, the splendor of the past brought home to us in a vivid style that makes us feel we are there in the artist’s gondola as he captures the city”. Sargent’s Venetian watercolors are frequently distinguished by cropped compositions and confident, vigorous brushwork that are characteristic of the artist’s finest works. His preference for painting in a gondola affords a low vantage point from which the viewer, like the artist, has the experience of floating along the Venetian canals, looking up at the city’s magnificent architecture. The shifting angles and tilted perspective lend these works a sense of immediacy and spontaneity.
Executed circa 1902 – 1904, the present work features the church of Santa Maria del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary), known as I Gesuati, which stands on the Zattere along the south side of Venice, facing the Giudecca Canal. Designed by renowned Venetian architect Giorgio Massari, the church was built over a thirty-year period from 1726 to 1755. “The upright format [of I Gesuati] allows the artist more room to display the full height of the church’s majestic façade (one of his favourites), here flanked symmetrically by groups of side buildings. The scene is set in a sparkling key and animated by figures”. The unique character of Venice, with its grand buildings lining the canals and the pervasive quality of light reflected on water, compelled many 19th century artists to visit and paint the city. Sargent had introduced Claude Monet and his wife to Mary Young Hunter, a wealthy American who invited the Monets to stay with her at the Palazzo Barbaro in October 1908. The Palazzo Barbaro was the Venetian home of expatriate Americans Mr. & Mrs. Daniel Curtis, close friends of Sargent’s with whom he often stayed himself during visits to the city. This was to be Monet’s only trip to Venice, during which he undertook a series of thirty-seven paintings. Rather than taking the angular views from a gondola on the canals preferred by Sargent, Monet painted from the terrace and steps of the Palazzo Barbaro, looking across the Grand Canal to the Palazzo da Mula, Palazzo Dario and the Palazzo Contarini.
Sargent’s fascination with the complexities of Venice, its architecture and inhabitants never diminished. Richard Ormond writes that his Venetian compositions are a testament “to his lasting fascination with the city, its great past and its present-day vitality, its ambiguity as a city on land and in water, and its peculiar ambiance of fantasy and escape. Deep-seated as was Sargent’s nostalgia for the Venice of the past, the manner in which he chose to record it was intensely modern. His studies, seemingly so spontaneous in feeling, were the product of careful construction and a concern with the surface properties of paint. As a creative artist, Sargent never stood still; he never relied on formulas and was always reaching to capture the essence of what he saw and experienced”.