British And American Artists In Venice 1815 – Present

Study Day

Lecture One: The Discovery of Venice 1815 – 1850

Although Venice was well known in Britain through the paintings of Canaletto, comparatively few Englishmen visited Venice on the Grand Tour. There was the problem of transport, accommodation and above all the lack of Classical art and architecture which they so much admired. Venice was also very poor in the early 19th century and under Austrian control.

Venice was put on the artistic map by J.M.W.Turner who made three brief visits to the city. Turner was followed by artists such as Samuel Prout, Richard Parkes Bonington and Clarkson Stanfield, and of course by a flood of tourists benefiting from the arrival of the railway to Venice in the 1840’s.  John Ruskin first visited Venice in 1835 and  returning to start work on his guide book ‘The Stones of Venice’ which became a best seller and also laid the foundation for the Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ruskin really put Venice on the itinerary for travel to Italy.

A hoard of artists followed in the footsteps of Ruskin, some very good, others simply working to a formula. Notable painters of Venice in the mid-century include William Callow, James Holland and Birket Foster. Ruskin encouraged younger artists such as John Bunney, Albert Goodwin and John Inchbold to paint in Venice, often commissioning work from them.


Lecture Two: Two Americans in Venice, James Whistler and John Singer Sargent

Whistler arrived in Venice as a bankrupt in the autumn of 1879 and suffered a bitterly cold and lonely winter.  He had been sent to Venice by the Fine Art Society of Bond Street, London following his unsuccessful and foolish court case against John Ruskin. Whistler had sued Ruskin as a result of an article Ruskin had written about one of Whistler’s paintings. While winning the case, Whistler was awarded only one farthing in damages and left with a huge legal bill.

The directors of the Fine Art Society agreed to pay for Whistler to spend three months in Venice to return with a series of etchings for an exhibition. In the event Whistler stayed for over a year (much to the concern of the directors) but eventually returned with over 100 pastels and a series of wonderful prints all which were shown at the Fine Art Society, re-establishing both Whistler’s finances and his reputation.

As the cold winter of 1879 turned into a warm spring, artists and art students from American and Britain began to arrive, and Whistler soon became known as ‘The Master’. He behaved outrageously and performed many amusing practical jokes, but all the time working hard and ceaselessly. The 14 months Whistler spent in Venice from 1879 to 1880 were probably the most productive of his entire career.

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 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.


Lecture Three: From Walter Sickert to Ken Howard

In 1895 Walter Sickert made the first of a number of visits to Venice. He came with his wife in an attempt to patch up a failing marriage, and painted nothing on this first trip. He fell in love with the brooding atmosphere of Venice in the evening and soon returned for a number of extended stays between 1896 and 1904. A brilliant linguist he quickly mastered not only Italian but the Venetian dialect, and moving away from the areas inhabited by British and American expats, he settled in the rundown areas of Venice painting the local people. His atmospheric paintings of Venice and her people are unique. Sickert fell in love with Maria Louisa Fortuny and often visited their Palazzo Pesaro Orfei, now the Fortuny Museum. There were many other talented artists working in Venice in the late 19th century including Mortimer Menpes, Walter Tyndale whose diary is a fascinating glimpse into Venice of the time, Frank Brangwyn, and the wonderful American watercolourist Maurice Prendergast. In the interwar years, Venice was painted by members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Venice has remained a popular place to paint. Edward Seago was a regular visitor and in more recent years Sickert’s work was to have a great influence on contemporary painters such as Tom Coates, Bernard Dunstan, Diana Armfield and Ken Howard who continue the tradition of British artists in Venice to this day.