• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Venice Out of Season


Henry James arrived in Venice for his first extended stay in June 1881.3 The previous winter he had in all likelihood seen exhibitions of Whistler’s etchings and delicately colored pastels at the Fine Art Society. He therefore need hardly have left London to find the model for the dilapidated gray and pink palazzo of the Misses Bordereau in The Aspern Papers:

It was not particularly old, only two or three centuries; and it had an air not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career. But its wide front, with a stone balcony from end to end of the piano nobile or most important floor, was architectural enough, with the aid of various pilasters and arches; and the stucco with which in the intervals it had long ago been endued was rosy in the April afternoon. It overlooked a clean, melancholy, unfrequented canal, which had a narrow riva or convenient footway on either side.

When, years later, in The Wings of the Dove, he evoked a different Venice, the Venice of the Palazzo Barbaro and the Grand Canal, he did so obliquely, as though he were aware that after Ruskin’s exalted prose poems, his readers already “knew” the city where Milly Theale comes to die. Just as Whistler asked the viewer to bring his own imagination to bear on the eloquent voids that perform so active a role in the compositions of his etchings and pastels, so James uses silence as a dramatic device, allowing his readers to picture for themselves the opulent settings he refuses to describe. Even as a writer, Whistler, one sometimes feels, saw Venice in ways that anticipated James. Here is Whistler, writing to his mother from Venice:

This evening the weather softened slightly and perhaps to-morrow may be fine—and then Venice will be simply glorious, as now and then I have seen it—after the wet, the colours upon the walls and their reflections in the canals are more gorgeous than ever—and with sun shining upon the polished marble mingled with rich toned bricks and plaster, [this] amazing city of palaces becomes really a fairyland…. The people with their gay gowns and handkerchiefs—and the many tinted buildings for them to lounge against or pose before, seem to exist especially for one’s pictures and to have no other reason for being! One could certainly spend years here and never lose the freshness that pervades the place!4

And here is James’s famous description toward the end of the Wings of the Dove of Venice in the autumn, after the first sea storms have cleared the air:

The weather changed, the stubborn storm yielded, and the autumn sunshine, baffled for many days, but now hot and almost vindictive, came into its own again and, with an almost audible paean, a suffusion of bright sound that was one with the bright colour, took large possession. Venice glowed and plashed and called and chimed again; the air was like a clap of hands, and the scattered pinks, yellows, blues, sea-greens, were like a hanging-out of vivid stuffs, a laying down of fine carpets.5

For James, too, Venice presented the artist with a moral problem. How does he reconcile the picturesque beauty of the city with the poverty which was an inseparable part of that beauty? Honour and Fleming have traced James’s preoccupation with this question in some of his articles in American magazines. At Torcello, James tells the readers of The Nation, “the poor lad who brought us the key of the cathedral was shaking with an ague, and his melancholy presence seemed to point the moral of forsaken nave and choir.” And again, “It is not easy to say that one would have [the Venetians] other than they are, and it certainly would make an immense difference should they be better fed.”

James had always admired Whistler’s prints, and eventually came to understand the paintings, but how much did he know of the man? In The Ambassadors, published in the year of Whistler’s death, 1903, he gave the sculptor Gloriani some of Whistler’s cosmopolitan charm, and the key scene in the novel (when Lambert Strether tells little Bilham to “Live all you can…”) is set in Gloriani’s garden, a minutely accurate description of Whistler’s Paris residence in the Rue du Bac.

What I believe James finally understood about Whistler and his art is that its real subject was very similar to one of James’s own cherished themes, the all-importance of the conscious aesthetic experience of life. In everything Whistler ever wrote or said about art he stressed that it was the artist’s role to choose, to discriminate, to cultivate, to make something out of nothing. Thus, in his London nocturnes he transformed the factory chimneys and power stations along the Thames into views every bit as lovely as those he found in Venice. In the “Ten O’Clock” lecture, he said:

And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone….


John Singer Sargent made the first of what were to become nearly annual visits to Venice in the autumn of 1880, fresh out of Carolus Duran’s atelier, at twenty-four a prodigy whom his friend Henry James would memorably describe as offering “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”6

According to his first biographer, Evan Charteris, Sargent’s Venice is

fashioned magically in stone, the glint of its waters, the reflections on its walls, its gondolas, the spars and sails of its shipping thrown against the background of a church, or its dazzling sky mirrored on the dancing facets of an agitated canal.

So far, he could be describing a work by Whistler. But Charteris perceptively goes on to say that

[Sargent] paints here, there, and everywhere with a deliberate nonchalance in the choice of his topics, taking things as they come; discovering things as it were by accident, but seeing them with an intensely personal outlook….

With his dazzling technique Sargent is almost too facile. He is like a tourist in his gondola with a new Instamatic, snapping sights more or less as he bumps into them, planning to sort it all out later when he gets back home. What for Whistler was the supreme importance of artistic selection, the sense that the artist chooses his subject because he has discovered its innate pictorial harmony, has no relevance for Sargent’s work as a view painter. In his hundreds of Venetian watercolors he seems to draw no distinction between the visual interest offered by conventionally picturesque subjects on the Grand Canal and those provided by nondescript courtyards and alleyways.

Sargent came to Venice to paint a series of studies which could then be worked up into a picture suitable for exhibition at the Salon. When, like James and Whistler, he plunged into the ragged back streets and poorer quarters to study the bead stringers or water carriers, the figures somehow always look like models posing in the studio. With one or two exceptions (Honour and Fleming describe Sargent’s Whistlerian Venise par temps gris, a view of the Riva degli Schiavoni from the windows of the Casa Jankovitz, as perfectly capturing the “sad, empty, lost, ‘out of season’ atmosphere of the city”), Sargent does not bear comparison with James or Whistler, as an interpreter of the city.

What is it that makes Whistler’s paintings look so fresh and Sargent’s so contrived? The answer, once again, partly lies in Whistler’s early training in Paris. Then, he had come under the influence of the theories of the French painter Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Lecoq advocated an anti-academic discipline of training the memory in art whereby the artist studied a scene until it was learned “by heart,” then returned to his studio to paint it. Otto Bacher, an American artist who was with Whistler in Venice describes the method in practice. Night after night Whistler

watched the gondolas pass, singly and in groups, with lanterns waving in the darkness, without making a stroke with brush or pen. Then he would return to his rooms and paint the scene, or as much as he could remember, going again and again to refresh some particular impression.

By eliminating (or at least reducing) his dependence on sketches Whistler sought to minimize the distance between his emotional response sur le motif, and the direct expression of that emotion in paint. He also achieved a sophisticated balance between naturalism and decoration, the sense that, while being “real” views of nature, the paintings, like the etchings, are above all objets d’art.

Still, comparing Whistler and Sargent in Venice is unfair because Sargent was primarily a portrait painter, and it is he who shows us an aspect of Venice in which Whistler had no artistic interest, the cultivated expatriate life of the city. Honour and Fleming introduce us to a colony of colorful American hostesses including Katherine de Kay Bronson in her small palace at the entrance to the Grand Canal, and the overexcited Boston grand dame Isabella Stewart Gardner, who often took the magnificent Palazzo Barbaro for the summer. But above all there is the family who owned the Barbaro, Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Curtis, whom Sargent painted in his wonderful An Interior in Venice, now in the Royal Academy. In this throwback to the eighteenth-century conversation piece, Sargent shows the Curtis family in the painted and gilded salon of the palace, shutters closed against the glare of the sun, the light reflected from the canal playing on the ceiling, making the four of them look like tropical fish in an aquarium.

Here Sargent is at his most Jamesian, using pose and gesture to identify these people as a “good” American family abroad. The son, Ralph, in white duck trousers, casually perches on a carved Italian console table. His father carries on reading the newspaper with an informality unthinkable outside his own family circle.

One is reminded of how Isabel Archer finally understands the true nature of Gilbert Osmond’s intimacy with Madame Merle when she comes upon the pair in her Roman drawing room and finds the woman standing and the man seated, and even more tellingly, knowing each other so well they can be together without feeling the need to speak. It is no wonder that James himself desperately wished to buy An Interior in Venice from Sargent.

This same Mr. Curtis, Honour and Fleming tell us, had left Boston under a little cloud, having been arrested in Boston on the charge of tweaking the nose of a fellow commuter. But Sargent is engaged in creating a myth of cultivated leisure, not in exploring character. The aristocratic Curtises are shown to have all the time in the world. They are like Olympian gods (or indeed like characters in Henry James’s fiction), interesting to us precisely because they seem for a moment to exist above such considerations as money or work, and to be living their lives on a higher, more fully conscious plane of existence.

Honour and Fleming bring their deep knowledge of Venice and its inhabitants to every page of Venetian Hours, enlivening their text with color reproductions of paintings, photographs, and caricatures, several of which they have discovered in private Venetian collections. Moreover, they never lose sight of the reason for writing the book in the first place, which is to cast new light on the art of James, Whistler, and Sargent by looking at them together.

I wish I could say the same for Gordon Fleming’s James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life. But Fleming, a former professor of English literature, shows so little interest in Whistler’s art that one wonders why on earth he was curious about Whistler’s life. He piles fact upon fact about that life, but entirely misses its real drama, which lies in the work. As for the critical judgments, I will just give one example because it brings us back to Henry James’s dinner at the Reform Club. Whistler and Montesquiou predictably became fast friends, and in 1891 Whistler painted the full length portrait Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, one of the masterpieces of late nineteenth-century portraiture, and today one of the glories of the Frick collection in New York. This work Fleming lumps among Whistler’s “minor efforts of no great significance.” As the Master himself might have said: “Amazing!”

  1. 3

    James had been to Venice twice before, but each time very briefly, in 1869 and 1872.

  2. 4

    Katharine A. Lochnan, The Etchings of James McNeill Whistler (Yale University Press, 1984), p. 187.

  3. 5

    Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, (Penguin, 1986), p. 385.

  4. 6

    Henry James, “The Painter’s Eye,” Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts (Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 218.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print