Born Friedrich Nerlich in Erfurt in 1807, Nerly moved at the age of eight to live with relatives in Hamburg, following the premature death of his father. His uncle, who became his first drawing instructor, introduced him to the house of Johann Michael Speckter, a centre of intellectual and artistic liberalism in early 19th-century Hamburg. There, in 1823, he met Carl Friedrich Freiherr von Rumohr, a famous writer, scholar, art collector and draftsman, who decided to take the inexperienced painter under his wing. Nerlich soon became von Rumohr's best student: he not only took advantage of his master's artistic skills, but was also introduced to the highest social circles. Von Rumohr was an advocate of anti-academic teaching methods and influenced the younger artist's style according to his own personal beliefs. Nerlich was therefore taught to study from life, a practice which brought him the enviable ability to worm out the secrets of nature on canvas.
In 1828 Nerlich travelled to Italy with his mentor, an experience that left a permanent mark on the artist. Nerlich decided to spend the rest of his life there and changed his name to Nerly, a pronunciation closer to the Italian language. When von Rumohr decided to return to Germany, Nerly headed for Rome, where he remained for the following six years, soon becoming an emblematic figure within the community of German artists. Thereafter he moved to Venice, where he married a local woman and settled for the rest of his life.
The present work is one of Nerly's best Venetian canvases. From his studio in the Palazzo Pisani, near the Campo San Stefano, a favourite meeting point for the Venetians, the artist was stimulated by breathtaking views of the romantic city. Having become acquainted with Joseph Mallord William Turner, who worked in Venice between 1819 and 1821, Nerly's realism absorbed an element of romanticism, as he adopted a new dramatic effect of light in his panoramas.
In this beautiful painting, Nerly portrays a Venetian sunset on the Grand Canal, the sun already hidden behind Santa Maria della Salute and the water rippled by a light breeze. On the right, next to the Doge's Palace, are the Marco and Todaro columns, leading along the Molo via the Library, the Zecca and the State Grain Storage Houses all the way to the entrance of the Grand Canal. The Punta della Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute both feature to the left of the canal entrance. The composition is completed by a few ships and gondolas which counterbalance the dominant horizontal perspective.