James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
The Gail and John Liebes Collection
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Fondamente dei Mori

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)
Fondamente dei Mori
signed with artist's butterfly device (lower right)
pastel and chalk on brown paper
8 x 11 ¾ in. (20.3 x 29.8 cm.)
Executed circa 1879-80.
The artist.
Lady Meux, Theobalds, Hertfordshire, England, gift from the above, by 1904.
The Earl of Sandwich, Kent, England.
Sotheby’s, London, 3 April 1963, lot 21, sold by the above.
Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London, acquired from the above.
Private collection, acquired from the above, 1965.
Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd., London, acquired from the above.
Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York, acquired from the above, 1967.
Private collection, acquired from the above.
Thomas Colville Fine Art, New Haven, Connecticut.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1992.
Daily Telegraph, February 5, 1881.
“Mr. Whistler’s ‘Venice Pastels,” The Queen, February 12, 1881.
M. Menpes, Whistler as I Knew Him, London, 1904, n.p., no. 27, illustrated (as Venice).
M.F. Macdonald, James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels and Watercolors: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995, p. 279, no. 760, illustrated.
A. Grieve, Whistler's Venice, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, pp. 102-03, fig. 115, illustrated.
M.F. MacDonald, Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice, Berkeley, California, 2001, pp. 43, 45, 99, fig. 45, illustrated.
London, Fine Art Society, Venice Pastels, January 29-April 1, 1881, p. 4, no. 44.
London, Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd., Drawings & Watercolours, 1860-1960, June 2-27, 1964, p. 4, no. 5, illustrated (as A Venetian Canal).
New York, Vance Jordan Fine Art, Inc., Poetic Painting: American Masterworks from the Clark and Liebes Collections, October 29-December 7, 2001, pp. 10, 21, 36, pl. 9, illustrated.

Lot Essay

In September of 1879, James McNeill Whistler traveled to Venice to begin work on a set of a dozen etchings depicting the fabled city. The etchings were commissioned by the Fine Art Society in London, which also provided the artist with a stipend to support him for a planned three-month visit. He stayed for over a year, producing some fifty etchings along with several paintings and pastels. They were, as noted by one art historian, "some of the most innovative things he had ever done." (R. Dorment, M.F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, London, 1984, p. 179)

For his subject matter, Whistler all but ignored the broader canal views and well-traveled attractions of Venice, preferring instead to depict lesser-known corners of the city, as he does here with Fondamente dei Mori. Highly representative of Whistler's best Venice pastels, the present work exemplifies his signature style, using a dark paper to provide a foil for his deft color notes of pinks, blues, whites and oranges. He renders details with a fine black line, thoughtfully placing the most telling architectural elements and a few figures busily moving along the quay enlivening the scene with added color and movement.

According to Whistler scholar Margaret F. MacDonald, “the view appears to combine elements from several houses on the Fondamente dei Mori, which Whistler probably drew from the bridge over the canal. The name of the quay comes from the two statues of Moors which stand against the houses. The quay is distinctly off the beaten track. It might well have interested him because it included the house of Jacopo Tintoretto, one of the artists he admired greatly." (James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels and Watercolors: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995, p. 279).

A contemporary review of Whistler’s 1881 exhibition at the Fine Art Society in London commented on the present work, specifically noting “the agitated little crowd on the narrow quay, where the moored boats are all deserted, and the gables houses jostle one another, seemingly, as they look down on the sight at their feet” and continued to describe Fondamente dei Mori “among the most striking examples” in the exhibition. (Daily Telegraph, February 5, 1881) Likewise, The Queen critic thought it “one of the better works--more definite in subject and expression of an idea.” (“Mr. Whistler’s ‘Venice Pastels,” The Queen, February 12, 1881)

In its intimate depiction of an everyday narrative, Fondamente dei Mori represents a dramatic departure from the grand evocations of Venice characteristic of earlier artists such as Canaletto, Guardi and Turner. "By contrast," writes Richard Dorment, "Whistler's vision of Venice was essentially new. He was the first major artist to stray off the Grand Canal along the stagnant backwater canals, the first to penetrate the secret cortiles and high bare salons of impoverished palazzos. He set out to depict the lagoon on hot moonless nights, when the only light gleams from riding lamps swaying on the prows of silent gondolas. 'I have learned to know a Venice in Venice,' he wrote, 'that the others seem never to have perceived.'" (James McNeill Whistler, p. 179)

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