Sargent first visited Venice as an art student while based in Paris, and returned for two trips 1880-1882 during which time he painted some superb oils of Venetian life. Having established himself as a successful portrait painter in London, he found it virtually impossible to get away to Venice, but in the late 1890’s he began winding down his portrait work and was able to rediscover the joys of Venice, staying most summers with his cousins in the Palazzo Barbaro. His watercolours painted from the late 1890’s to 1913, his last visit, are magnificent – brilliant studies of sunlight and movement.
The Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal was bought by the Curtis family, relations of John Singer Sargent, in the 1880’s. The palazzo soon became the centre for British and American painters, writers and visitors. In the Grand Salon overlooking the Salute, Sargent painted his famous portrait of the Curtis family, while in the Library on the top floor, Henry James wrote ‘The Wings of the Dove’. Other regular visitors to the Palazzo Barbaro included Robert Browning and his son Pen, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was buying Venetian art and objects for her museum in Boston, the art historian John Addington Symonds, the archaeologist Sir Henry Layard, the artist Walter Sickert and many others.