The French artist’s quasi-modernist view of the City of Canals — a memento painted for a friend — also brought back happy memories for David Rockefeller, explains Bianca Arrivabene, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s in Italy
In 1957, David Rockefeller purchased Venise, vue du Quai des Esclavons by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) from the Wildenstein & Co. gallery in New York. David and his wife, Peggy, were hardly strangers to the 19th-century French painter’s work: seven years earlier they had acquired Corot’s Houses on the Quay, Honfleur (1830) from the same gallery.
Moved by the painting’s beauty, David immediately recognised its proportions were perfect for the space above his fireplace. ‘Its size and shape, which was rather long and low, were precisely what we had been looking for to replace Cézanne’s Jas de Bouffan, which we had over our mantel in the library at Hudson Pines,’ he would later recall. ‘We had bought the Cézanne seven years earlier but it did not... seem right for the spot.’ His hunch proved right, and Corot’s painting remained above the mantel at Hudson Pines for the rest of David’s life.
Painted in 1845, this view was made at the behest of a friend who had toured Rome, Naples and Venice on Corot’s advice. Upon his return, he commissioned a series of paintings as mementos from Corot, who readily obliged. In executing this piece, the artist worked from a smaller plein-air sketch from 1834, made on the second of three trips to Italy between 1825 and 1843.
‘Corot probably achieved the slightly raised perspective by standing on the bridge between the Doge’s Palace and the Hotel Danieli, most likely first thing in the morning, given the angle of the light,’ says Bianca Arrivabene, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s in Italy.
‘I think what initially attracted David to this work was its sense of modernism,’ Arrivabene continues, speaking from the study of her Venice apartment, just a stone’s throw from where Corot drew this scene.
‘Its thick colours and muted palette anticipates the work of the Surrealists a century later. In it you can recognise de Chirico’s empty piazzas, Dalí’s shadows and Magritte’s blue skies,’ she adds. ‘Unlike Corot’s earlier, more detailed versions of this scene — now in Russia’s Pushkin Museum and California’s Norton Simon Museum — which look back 100 years to the work of Canaletto, this painting looks forward.’
On a more personal level, says Arrivabene, ‘This painting probably conjured memories for David of his trips to Venice, which he visited with friends in 1938 after finishing his postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. Afterwards, they sailed down the Adriatic on a trip he later described as one of his most memorable.’
In 1971, while visiting Australia with Peggy, David spotted Corot’s original sketch for this work in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. ‘Perhaps we made the curator a little envious by telling him that we have the oil painting,’ he wrote years later. ‘In any event, we sent him a photograph of our painting.’
‘David knew how lucky he was to be able to own art like this,’ says Arrivabene. ‘The fact that he spent his spare time visiting galleries and speaking to curators shows how passionate he was.’