John Singer Sargent formed an abiding love for and fascination with Venice's unique patina and engaging contradictions which informed his depictions of the mysterious floating city for over thirty years. The Piazzetta with Gondolas, executed circa 1902-04, is a vibrant and dynamic example of the Venice Sargent painted during his nearly annual visits from 1898 to 1913 and a window into the life and travels of one of the most celebrated American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Sargent's affair with Venice spanned the majority of his life and came to reflect many of the dichotomies and contradictions inherent to the city. He first encountered Venice on a trip with his itinerant family in 1870, at the age of fourteen, as noted in the margin of his sketchbook, which he regularly filled with imagery from his vast travels. During this initial visit, "Sargent was undoubtedly influenced by the tastes and pre-occupations of nineteenth-century French writers for whom the poetry of Venetian squalor and dilapidation defined her appeal." (Sargent's Venice, New Haven, Connecticut, 2006, p. 23) He was particularly struck by the aging façades and peculiar ambiance that defined the city in the 19th century. Much as the way light fails to penetrate the side channels of the Grand Canal, so did many Western expatriates and society doyennes fail to see the stark differences that divided the lush parties in palazzos from that of a city and society sinking under its own weight. Sargent's early paintings from the 1880s focused on these gritty urban realities of modern life in Venice. He painted dark interiors, louche figures in narrow streets and Venetian women stringing beads in a moody, Tonalist palette of earthen colors punctuated by dark passages.
By the late 1890s, Sargent had cemented his reputation as the premier portraitist to Europe's and America's elite and his commissioned portraits, as well as several subject picture Salon entries, had garnered him significant critical praise. He was tiring of the demands of his wealthy sitters and preferred instead to focus on his subject pictures, almost always based on his travels away from his London studio. In 1898, Sargent returned to Venice for the first time since those earlier trips to visit his friends Daniel and Ariana Curtis at their home, Palazzo Barbaro. Palazzo Barbaro became the cultural hub for American and English expatriates and was a temporary home to Henry James and other literati. During this visit, and on his annual excursions to the city until the onset of war in 1913, Sargent began translating Venice through the lens of his mind's eye, taking obvious delight in the magnificent Renaissance and Baroque architecture rather than the darker underbelly of the city's inhabitants. Unlike many artists who painted Venice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Turner, Thomas Moran and Walter Launt Palmer, Sargent was less interested in transcribing Venice's fabled vistas and panoramic views, preferring instead more intimate examinations of the canals. In order to view Venice from this new vantage point, Sargent set out in gondolas to approach the city from the water, capturing the vivid imagery in dazzling watercolor tones. These watercolors, such as The Piazzetta with Gondolas, have the effect of a snapshot, echoing contemporary photography with their cropped, close-up views, tilted perspective and fluctuating angles. While executing these works on the ever-changing waters of the Grand Canal creates the effect of immediate experience and spontaneity, Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray write, "nothing is unpremeditated in these water-colours, but Sargent seduces us into imagining that they are spontaneous impressions, captured on the instant as we glide by." (John Singer Sargent: Venetian Figures and Landscapes, 1898-1913, Complete Paintings, vol. VI, New Haven, Connecticut, 2009, p. 121)
In The Piazzetta with Gondolas, Sargent depicts the Libreria on the left, with a view of St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace on the right. In the foreground, a fleet of traghetti battelli, or gondolas, form a delightful pattern as they bob at the water's edge, their crescent shaped hulls echoed in the deep blue of the canal's water. The richness and complexity of the colors are offset by the fluidity of the transparent strokes which animate the composition, lending a sense of immediacy and modernity. Ormond writes of these later Venetian works, "Romantic by temperament, increasingly inspired by the principles of classical architecture and modern in his feeling for pictorial surface, and fracture, Sargent responded to the buildings of Venice in a style all his own. The majority of his studies are in watercolor, and it was his fluency and mastery of the medium that enabled him to capture the essence of form and light in works that are bold and colorful...He frequently isolated parts of buildings, taking them out of the context of the whole and subjecting the parts to forensic examination. He looked at buildings from odd angles, compressing and foreshortening them, pressing our noses up against them to make us see Venice in snatches and fragments, as he saw it. In his hands the architecture of Venice becomes the medium of dynamic pictorial construction: of shifting surface patterns, disorienting angles, slicing diagonals, and receding perspectives. Often poking into the foreground of these studies is the prow of his own gondola, the authorial voice introducing the scene and identifying the guide." (Sargent's Venice, p. 72)
Elaine Kilmurray and Elizabeth Oustinoff write, "In Sargent's time, people came to Venice to escape the modern world, just as they continue to do today. A place that is physically marooned and technically ingenious, with beautiful buildings that float ethereally and improbably between sea and sky, marooned in time, it is a magical city that 'can only be compared to itself.' Venice remains a city of theater, spectacle, and illusion, with a sense of unreality emphasized by the way in which prospects and buildings play with perception--tricking the eye like trompe l'oeil, introducing distorted perspectives, unexpected foreshortenings and strange visual conceits. These are the unique qualities that informed Sargent's vision, which has become part of our vision of Venice." (Sargent's Venice, p. 25) The Piazzetta with Gondolas is a superb example of Sargent's Venetian watercolors that manifests both his intimate relationship with the city and his distinctive approach to its intricate grandeur.