Back in Sargent's Venice

Painting: John Singer Sargent captured the unique essence of Venice in a series of vivid paintings, writes Colm Tóibín

Painting:John Singer Sargent captured the unique essence of Venice in a series of vivid paintings, writes Colm Tóibín

Like many other tourists in Venice over the years I have stood on the other side of the Accademia Bridge and looked across the Grand Canal at the Palazzo Barbaro, the famous building owned by the Curtis family, who had left Boston in 1877, in whose library Henry James had slept, having a special bed made up for him. He described the palace in many letters, and also in his novel The Wings of the Dove. He finished his story The Aspern Papers there. In one of these grand rooms, in 1898, John Singer Sargent painted the Curtis family in their baroque salon (pictured right); they disliked the painting but were reassured by James, who wrote to Mrs Curtis to say how much he "absolutely and unreservedly adored" it.

John Singer Sargent's story belongs in a novel by James. His deeply refined parents had left Philadelphia in 1854, two years before his birth, and remained in Europe, where they wandered a great deal. He was born in Florence, took to culture early - when his sister gave him Paradise Lost when he was 13, for example, he read it for pleasure; he later studied in Paris, where he knew Monet, moving to London in 1886.

Sargent's mother left no stone unturned in showing culture to her son; he saw Venice a number of times when he was a teenager. By the time he began to work as a painter in the city in 1880, it was already well established as a place of exquisite beauty and faded glory. Its own great painters long dead, it had been re-discovered by outsiders in the 19th century, beginning with Byron's Childe Harold in 1818. Ruskin's Stones of Venice, published between 1851 and 1853, set the tone. Venice, he wrote, "is still left for our beholding in the final part of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak - so quiet - so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City and which the Shadow".


SINGER WAS ALERT, as he began to work, to the watery city as watery cliche. While he did paintings and watercolours of the churches and the canals at the beginning, he avoided the views that Turner had relished, full of dramatic light and faded majesty; in his first visits as a painter, between 1880 and 1882, he depicted side canals, back streets, and also the poor and manual workers in the unglamorous and seedy city.

But it was hard to get away from water, from the beauty of the buildings and the sheer exotic nature of the place. Even though he reduced his palette to greys and yellows and dark greens for a painting of the waterfront in 1882, for example, nonetheless the inclusion of the church of the Salute in the hazy distance makes clear that this was the Venice of artists. As time went on, Sargent slowly tired of painting the city's working class and became more interested in the glory of its stones and its interiors. When he become a regular visitor, painting in Venice almost every year between 1898 and 1913, producing more than 150 oils and watercolours, he did mainly architecture and topography.

Some of this work is weak and watery; he is at his best, however, when he takes a small scene - some columns or steps or the side of a building - often from a strange perspective or when he paints interiors in the grand style. His work in Venice, done over four decades, is an important enough aspect of his work to be presented in this single volume rather than placed chronologically in the many volumes of his Complete Paintings, which Yale University Press is publishing.

The essays that accompany the many reproductions of his work in this book thus can concentrate on the history of his time in Venice and the context. The work in recent years of Rosella Mamoli Zorzi on the writers who came to the city and their relationship to its permanent residents has been invaluable. Her essay here on Sargent and James in Venice is superb. William H Gerdts's essay on the invasion of Venice by American artists, which began in the 1870s, is also fascinating, especially his admitting that we have no record much of any interaction between the painters from outside who flocked to the place and the flocks of local Venetian artists who continued working there.

VENICE, DESPITE THE best efforts of the water and the millions of tourists, will not go away, although its permanent population is dwindling. The views that Sargent painted remain undisturbed. Once you walk away from the Grand Canal and the Piazza San Marco, especially in the winter, the place which Ruskin described, and Henry James and Thomas Mann and many others used as a place of desolate and shadowy drama, is still astonishing beautiful and resonant. Most astonishing of all perhaps is the Palazzo Barbaro itself, some of it still in the hands of the Curtis family, the old library untouched, exactly as it was when Henry James slept there, when it was being rented by Isabella Stewart Gardner, writing archly to Mrs Curtis in 1892 of his make-shift bedroom: "Have you ever lived here? - if you haven't, if you haven't gazed upward from your couch, in the rosy dawn, or during the postprandial (that is after luncheon) siesta, at the medallions and arabesques of the ceiling, permit me to tell you that you don't know the Barbaro".

Colm Tóibín's most recent book is Mothers and Sons (Picador)

 Sargent's Venice Edited by Warren Adelson and Richard Ormond Yale University Press, 223pp. £40