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John Singer Sargent is known as the most successful society portrait painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But there was another side to his art. From 1880 to 1913, he painted more than 150 watercolours and oil paintings of Venice, yet most disappeared into private collections and have never been seen in public. Consequently this show, which offers 60 of Sargent’s Venetian pictures, is particularly welcome.

Born in 1856 to American parents in Florence, Sargent lived a peripatetic existence. He arrived in Venice in 1879 and would visit the city dozens of times during the next 40 years. Compared with the months he spent in formal, European salon society, his visits to the island city must have been, literally, a breath of fresh air. He explored Venice from a gondola, drifting through its canals like a waterbound version of Baudelaire’s urban voyeur, the flâneur.

Perhaps it was this viewpoint that caused him to represent Venice less as a monumental European city – he studiously avoided wide-angle Canaletto-style spectacles – than as a picturesque, provincial fishing village. Seen from low in the water, Venice takes on a unique perspective. Palaces, stripped of their intimidating grandeur, reveal themselves through intricate architectural detail, their pale stonework a canvas for the play of light and water.

While studying in Paris in the 1870s, Sargent had been influenced by Impressionism and early photography. Using swift, short strokes, masterfully balanced light and shade and strong formal composition, he conveys the city in intimate, iridescent snapshots.

A 1904 watercolour of Palazzo Grimani, whose grandiose 16th-century facade was described by John Ruskin as “the noblest in Venice”, zooms in on the Greek key frieze carved around the base. The Palazzo Corner della Ca’Grande is cropped to a single, anonymous corner of classical columns and a couple of balustraded window arches.

Sargent was as fascinated by the architecture of boats as of buildings. Often he depicted famous Venetian monuments – the baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute, the Ducal Palace, the San Marciano Library – as little more than blurry backdrops to the complex rigging of sailing vessels or the sculptural prows of gondolas.

It is impossible not to be won over by the composed, vibrant charm of Sargent’s architectural and marine views. But the Venetian figure studies are more perplexing. Only one, “An Interior in Venice”, 1898, represents the beau monde who were the painter’s usual clients – and even that caused controversy. The canvas shows Daniel and Ariana Curtis, an elderly Anglo-American couple who had taken up residence in the Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. Also portrayed are the Curtis’s son Ralph leaning casually against a table, and a young woman, dressed in white, who pours tea from a porcelain service.

Ariana Curtis rejected the painting, saying it made her look old and her son louche, and Sargent donated it to the Royal Academy. Yet the picture, with its faintly blasé inhabitants posed in the magnificent, dimly lit salon with its tentacled chandelier and sumptuous stucco work is a perfect evocation of privileged, fin-de-siècle Venice. Home to the likes of Browning, Henry James, Proust and D’Annunzio, this was a world Sargent inhabited and understood.

But like any true flâneur, Sargent was also drawn to the back streets. In paintings such as “Venetian Wineshop”, where four black-shawled ladies are prettily draped on chairs beneath a quaint row of onion strings, his technical expertise is betrayed by saccharine emotion. (One of the models is his wealthy friend Jane de Glehn.)

More intriguing is “The Onion Seller”. A sultry girl with a string of pearly vegetables over one arm and the city glimpsed like a distant dream through a corner window, the painting is reminiscent of Velázquez’ early work, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, which situates the biblical story in the corner of a humble kitchen. Certainly, the Spanish maestro’s technique of painting onto the canvas without preliminary sketches influenced Sargent’s formal portraiture.

Overall, the plethora of vulnerable young ladies and muscular, sensuously sprawled boatmen suggests Sargent found it impossible not to eroticise the working classes. Perhaps it is the fate of the flâneur to remain forever an outsider.
Tel +39 041 5209070 www.museiciviciveneziani.it
Until July 22

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