Like artists before him, Sickert was bewitched by Venice. On his several visits between 1895 and 1904, he chronicled both its great sites and its quiet backwaters. He returned again and again to his favourite subjects, of which the Byzantine basilica of St Mark's and the round votive church of Santa Maria della Salute were pre-eminent. The Salute, masterpiece of its architect Longhena, was built during the seventeenth century as a thanksgiving to the Virgin for rescuing Venice from the plague of 1630. Set on the tongue of land where the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal meet, it is the visual epicentre of Venice. When Sickert first visited Venice in 1895 and 1896, he echoed the eighteenth century panoramic tradition established by Canaletto and Francesco Guardi to paint the church in the middle distance behind a deep stretch of the lagoon. In 1900 and 1901 he abandoned tradition and came right up and under the church to paint it rising up out of the water like a magnificent organic sculpture. In six paintings and in two large-scale drawings in pastel, he varied the composition little but the handling much. The fact that a version of the Salute was chosen for presentation to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1934 as Sickert's Diploma work (fig. 1) is testimony to the enduring success of this composition.
It can be difficult to establish whether a particular Venetian view was painted in 1900 or 1901. Subject is no help, because Sickert produced repeated versions of favourite motifs over many years. However, the crisp drawing, the high-keyed colours, the vivid tonal contrasts point to a date of 1901 for the present version of the Salute. In December 1900, Durand-Ruel had held a one-man Sickert exhibition in Paris. It was not a commercial success. The contrast of Sickert's uncompromising views of Dieppe and Venice with the concurrent show of Monet's Nymphéas could not have helped Sickert's cause. Desperate for money, and fearing that he might lose the support of such an eminent Parisian dealer, Sickert wrote on 2 April 1901 to Charles Durand-Ruel to assure him that he was shaking off his preference for dark tones and gloomy colours: 'J'ai réussi à trouver une coloration claire tout à fait différent de ce que vous avez vu de moi jusqu'ici'. [I have managed to achieve a light colour harmony quite different from anything you have seen of mine so far]. Sickert's Royal Academy Diploma work, painted in deep, glowing colours intensified by traces of squaring-up in vermilion which gleam through the final coats, was probably a work of 1900. By way of contrast, the present version of the Salute, seen in sunlight under a bright blue sky, reflects Sickert's emancipation from a muddy palette.
The treatment which Sickert developed in Venice in 1901, characterised by lucid definition and clean, lighter and brighter colours, was an immediate success. In the summer of 1901, when Durand-Ruel had seven Venetian views on display, Sickert told a friend: 'apart from purely aesthetic considerations, the firm considers them about the right article.' Both Durand-Ruel, and from May 1903, the other leading Parisian dealer in contemporary art, Bernheim Jeune, were eager to handle his Venice pictures. Thirty-two of the ninety-six paintings included in Sickert's exhibition with Bernheim in June 1904, were Venetian landscapes; twenty of these already belonged to private owners who lent them back for the exhibition. The magic of Sickert's luminous Venetian views of 1901, beautifuly exemplified in this version of the Salute, endures over a century later. The supply, however, is scarce. Typically, having discovered in Venice a theme and a handling which not only satisfied him but also satisfied his dealers and their clients, when in 1903 Sickert returned to the city he turned his back on the study of its water-locked architecture. Instead he stayed in his rooms to paint intimate figure groups, using the local prostitutes as his models.