The Amon Carter Museum examines the allure of Venice – for artists and collectors


The Serenissimaas the “serene” city of Venice is traditionally called, is so world famous for its artistic splendors that almost everything but tourism has now disappeared from the city, leaving behind only what caters to art lovers who visit from all over the world, whether they are wealthy collectors coming for the Biennale or cruise passengers disembarking for a day trip.

But “Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano”, a meticulously documented exhibition accompanied by a sumptuous catalogue, takes us back more than a century, to the time when the Biennale was a whole new thing. It was also around this time that the first wave of sophisticated American tourists fell in love with the city, drawn as much by its then thriving craft traditions of mosaic, glassblowing (near Murano) and lacework as by its landmarks. old.

John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, whose work featured prominently in the first three Biennials from 1895, were only the most important of many turn-of-the-century American artists who drew inspiration from both working artisans of Venice and its rich history.

Their paintings, drawings and prints, along with excellent examples of Venetian craftsmanship, have been loaned from museums across the country to assemble the current exhibit, which comes to the Smithsonian American Art Museum‘s Amon Carter Museum of American Art. in Washington, D.C., where he is from, before heading to Venice later this fall.

Thomas Moran’s 1891 oil painting “A View of Venice” predated the first Venice Biennale by four years. (Smithsonian Museum of American Art)(Mildred Baldwin)

The encounter between the wealthy American aesthetes, who gathered in the salons of the great palaces with Henry James and Edith Wharton, and the communities of traditional Venetian craftsmen creates a striking contrast.

We clearly see how, at a time when American art was funded by the wealth generated by the railroads and factories of Gilded Age America, Italy was still a developing country. So graceful are the maidens dragging buckets of water on their shoulders across the bridge in Frank Duveneck’s Water carriers, Venice that we almost forget to think about the perpetual exhaustion inherent in this way of life.

Many of the handicrafts on display are awe-inspiring as reminders of the countless hours of painstaking and painstaking manual work that would go into producing a single piece, whether it be a lace panel with lions from the Scuola dei Merletti di Burano, an eel-and-eel vase-fish attributed to Vittorio Zanetti or the mosaic tiling commissioned from Salviati & Co. for the brand new Stanford University in California.

However, unlike depictions of America’s urban working class alienated in our noisy and dangerous factories and steamworks, Venice’s craftsmanship is depicted as having a certain human integrity, most notably in Sargent’s painting. Venetian glassmakerswhich emphasizes the care and attention that each worker gives to his piece.

Unlike American factories, Venetian craft workshops were a major tourist attraction. Writer William Dean Howells observed that glass bead making was “one of the things foreigners think they must see in Venice”.

But the curators also explain that far from being a timeless survival of ancient traditions, this craft was the subject of determined efforts of revival in the 19th century, following the long decline of the city under the French and Austrian occupation which lasted for decades after the Napoleonic occupation. final conquest of the old republic in 1797.

The Scuola dei Merletti di Burano made this lace panel representing the Lion of Saint Mark....
The Scuola dei Merletti di Burano made this lace panel representing the Lion of Saint Mark. (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)(Matt Flynn)

These efforts included the large-scale restoration of St. Mark’s Basilica mosaics with Murano glass tiles and a newly founded lace school in the nearby village of Burano, whose renowned lace tradition had nearly died out. It was all part of a drive for economic development in the newly unified Kingdom of Italy, aimed at international visitors, which would eventually lead to the highly touristy Venice of today.

The show also traces a stimulating encounter between modernism and tradition. Although they are seen as complements rather than pure antagonists, sparks still fly as the past collides with the present. Far from the steel and concrete of modern Manhattan, painters exploring Venice were uniformly impressed by the former majesty of St. Mark’s and other reminders of the city’s golden age.

The novelist Henry James observed of the basilica: “You can go there every day and find a hidden pictorial corner again. … There are usually three or four painters, with their easels poised uncertainly on the undulating floor.

The Majestic by Charles Caryl Coleman The Bronze Horses of San Marco suggests the grandeur that was present in every corner of the city. And yet, painters have often chosen to represent these experiences in modern abstract styles as radical as Paul Cézanne or Georges Seurat.

For example, in Arthur Beecher Carles’ canvas Venetian gondolas and the mosaic of Maurice Brazil Prendergast Grand Canal Festival, Venice seems both to look back to Byzantium and to the age of electricity. Maxfield Parrish Venetian lighterscreated as an advertisement for General Electric light bulbs, shows this new technology in perfect harmony with its historic setting.

In the glass and tile mosaic of Maurice Brazil Prendergast
In the glass and tile mosaic “Fiesta Grand Canal” by Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Venice seems to look both towards Byzantium and towards the age of electricity. (Williams College Art Museum)(Photo Petegorsky / Gipe)

The magic of Venice has reached Chicago (where the 1893 World’s Fair hired 60 Venetian gondoliers for its artificial lake), Boston (where Isabella Stewart Gardner created a lavish Venetian courtyard for her new museum) and Japan (as evidenced by the prints of Yoshijiro Urushibara).

After the First World War, everything became old-fashioned and the revival of historical traditions began to seem inauthentic and unmodern. For a long time, many of the works on display have been quietly salvaged by collectors from former industrial towns like Albany, Toledo and Cincinnati, as well as colleges from Stanford to Bowdoin – all of whom have loaned pieces to the current exhibit.

But looking back a century later, this exhibition sheds new light on the beginnings of American participation in what we now call the international art world, while offering a lesson in how, at least for a time , craft traditions and a modern market can coexist fruitfully.


“Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” continues through September 11 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. Free. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. 817-738-1933.


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