In October 1908 a 68-year-old Claude Monet (1840-1926) made his first and only journey to Venice. During his 10-week stay, Monet painted 37 canvases: works prized today for their evocation of the city’s distinctive light as it plays across canals and stone buildings.
A month earlier Monet and his wife Alice had received an invitation to stay with his friend, Mary Hunter, a relative of John Singer Sargent whom Monet had met in London, at the opulent Palazzo Barbaro. For the previous four years Monet had barely strayed from his home at Giverny, absorbed in painting his lily pond.
On 25 September he sent his canvases and paints ahead to Venice. Six days later, he and Alice disembarked in La Serenissima. Alice was immediately smitten with Venice, but Monet had qualms about painting in a city that held such an eminent place in art history. Venice was a loaded commodity — ‘too beautiful to be painted’, he lamented shortly after his arrival.
In addition to the long line of colourists Venice had produced, the city had attracted scores of foreign artists, including J.M.W. Turner, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Edouard Manet, Paul Signac and Auguste Renoir. Painters in the tradition of Francesco Guardi and Canaletto also plied their trade there.
Monet lost no time in staking out challenging visual territory. He adopted a rigorous schedule, positioning his easel by 8am each morning. ‘I am happy now to see Monet so full of zeal, and doing such great things,’ Alice wrote to her daughter Germaine.
Although the couple had planned to remain in Venice for only a short time, Monet repeatedly delayed their departure, starting a new painting almost every day until he had a full three dozen in the works. ‘Venice has got hold of him and won’t let go,’ Alice wrote to the French journalist and art critic Gustave Geffroy in November.
As he had several years earlier in London, Monet selected a limited group of motifs to paint. Rather than charting changes in light on a given subject from morning to evening, however, he painted each site at a single moment in the day, scheduling his work in two-hour slots.
Immediately after breakfast he headed out in a gondola to paint the Doge’s Palace on the island of San Marco, setting up his easel either on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore or on a boat anchored offshore. He then reversed his vantage point, positioning himself on the island of San Marco and painting the church of San Giorgio.
In the afternoon, he stayed close to his quarters, looking across the Grand Canal toward the church of Santa Maria della Salute and a group of Renaissance palazzi, including the Dario, on the right bank. By eliminating time as a variable, he could focus his explorations on the famous Venetian haze.
This canvas from The Collection of Drue Heinz is one of four paintings Monet made of the Palazzo Dario, once owned by the British historian Rawdon Brown. The novelist Henry James described the palace, built in the late 1400s, as being made up of exquisite pieces like ‘a house of cards that hold together by a tenure it would be fatal to touch’.
‘Monet, perhaps more than with any other of his city series, orchestrated Venice to suit his own vision’ — curator Richard Thomson
Monet painted the palazzo head on, setting up his easel directly across the Grand Canal close to the Hôtel Britannia, where he and Alice had moved in mid-October after deciding to extend their stay.
From this vantage point he captured a nearly abstract composition, the irregular stone mass of the building, with its horizontals and verticals, contrasting with the ever-shifting surface below. The gondola moored in front of the palazzo implies a human presence, without his resorting to painting one, while the light and dark on the water suggests the picture was completed in the afternoon as the sun was beginning to set.
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‘Monet made his Venice somehow disembodied, a vision over the water,’ says Richard Thomson, curator of the National Gallery exhibition Monet and Architecture. ‘Monet saw the city as something apart, its monuments rather intangible and mysterious, identifiable yet unspecific, bathed in its own light. Monet, perhaps more than with any other of his city series, orchestrated Venice to suit his own vision.’
Claude and Alice Monet finally left Venice on 7 December. On their last day in Italy, the artist wrote to Geffroy, ‘My enthusiasm for Venice has done nothing but grow, and the moment has now come to leave this unique light. I grow very sad.’ Monet never returned to Venice, and the 37 paintings from 1908 would be the last he ever undertook outside of Giverny.
On 13 May, Le Palais Dario will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York.