We are grateful to Claire Lebeau for confirming the authenticity of this work.
Venise, vue du quai des Esclavons is one of the largest and most fully worked of a group of views that Corot made of the principal tourist sites of Venice during two trips that he took there in 1828 and 1834 and after his return to his Paris studio, where he used the canvases he had painted in situ as an aide-mémoire. The present painting is one of the latter works, and speaks to the enduring influence these trips to Italy had on the young artist. Although Corot spent far more time in Rome over the course of his career, he was equally dazzled by Venice. Emile Michel wrote in 1905, “Venice had delighted him above all. After visits to churches and palaces, where he paid homage to Titian, his favorite master, his days were filled with work. He was particularly struck by the transparency of the salt air, by the brilliance of the light, by the joyful coloration of the buildings that the waters of the Grand Canal reflect with still more delectable intonations” (Corot, Paris, 1905, p. 22).
Corot first visited Venice in October 1828, stopping there on his way back to France at the end of a three-year stay in Italy. Eager to see his family after such a long sojourn abroad, most of which he had spent in and around Rome, he remained in Venice for just a few days and painted only two or three small studies (Robaut, nos. 193-194; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and location unknown; and probably no. 314; Musée du Louvre, Paris). Corot returned to Venice on his next trip to Italy, a summer sketching trip through the northern part of the country in 1834. Traveling with the painter Jean-Charles-Denis Grandjean, he entered Italy at Ventimiglia in late May and worked in Genoa, Pisa, Volterra, and Florence before arriving in Venice on 18 August. He stayed there for three weeks, until 8 September, and then headed on to the Alpine lakes for the remainder of the month, returning to Paris in early October. During this second sojourn in Venice, Corot painted his most luminous studies of the city and also visited museums and churches filled with Venetian masterpieces of the sort that he had admired since his student days of copying paintings in the Louvre. Corot traveled to Italy for a third and final time in 1843, but he worked principally in Rome rather than returning to Venice once again.
The present canvas is one of five closely related paintings that Corot made depicting the view west along the Riva degli Schiavoni (Quai des Esclavons) in Venice, the broad embankment that extends eastward along the Grand Canal from the Piazzetta of San Marco. In the foreground is the Molo, or landing stage, with the Doges’ Palace at the right and the Library of San Marco straight ahead. To the left in the distance is the church of Santa Maria della Salute. The two granite columns near the center of the composition are crowned by medieval sculptures representing a lion, the symbol of Saint Mark, and Saint Theodore, the patron saint of the city.
Corot’s earliest view of this site dates to his first trip to Venice in 1828 (Robaut, no. 194), while one or two of the remaining canvases were probably painted from nature during the 1834 sojourn (Robaut, nos. 318 and 321; Pushkin Museum, Moscow, and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). Robaut identifies both of these as open-air studies and suggests that the version in Melbourne was the prototype for the later studio re-workings (op. cit., 1905, pp. 112 and 114). Vincent Pomarède argues that only the Moscow canvas–with its sketchy quality, relatively simple composition, and small format–was painted sur le motif and that the painting in Melbourne was executed after Corot’s return to France (exh. cat., op. cit., 1996 p. 130). The final two versions, including the present canvas, are the largest and most fully worked in the sequence and were certainly painted back in Corot’s studio in Paris (see also Robaut, no. 323). The present painting is in fact dated 1845, more than a decade after Corot’s second trip to Venice and not long after his last Italian journey.
In choosing to travel exclusively in the north of Italy in 1834 rather than returning to Rome, Corot was following a general trend of the mid-19th century, in which the lure of Rome had weakened beside the attraction of other cities. Peter Galassi has explained, “Turner and Ruskin made Venice their capital of Italy; the Brownings made Florence theirs. This broadening of the tourist’s map arose in part from the erosion of Neoclassicism and a new appreciation for Italian architecture and painting before Raphael” (Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical Landscape Tradition, New Haven, 1991, pp. 213-214).
During his two stays in Venice, Corot painted almost exclusively in the area of the Piazzetta and the Doges’ Palace, one of the most heavily trafficked tourist attractions in the city and a staple of Venetian veduta or view painting since the eighteenth century. Corot’s meticulous delineation of the architecture in his scenes of the Piazzetta is unusual for the artist, whose landscapes are more often lyrical and expressive, and speaks to the influence of his 18th century predecessor Canaletto. The great Venetian painter was well-known for his spectacularly detailed Venetian vedute and frequently painted the same view west along the Riva degli Schiavoni, rendering each building with painstaking accuracy. Corot’s contemporary Turner, who visited Venice in 1819, 1833, and 1840, also painted numerous views of this particular site, but he chose to focus on the rich atmospheric effects produced by the famous Venetian haze and by the sunlight shimmering across the water and the stone façades. These would be the same concerns that would preoccupy Monet when he visited Venice more than a half-century later, in the wake of a long line of foreign artists including Bonington, Manet, Boudin, Whistler, Sargent, Renoir, and Signac (for Monet’s views of the Doges’ Palace, see Wildenstein, nos. 742-744, 751-756 and 770).
Corot painted the present canvas at the request of François-Parfait Robert, a magistrate in the ancient town of Mantes, some thirty miles west of Paris. The artist met Robert in 1840 through Parfaite-Anastasie Osmond, the aunt of his childhood friend Abel Osmond. Corot was a frequent guest at Mme Osmond’s chateau at Rosny, near Mantes; Robert was the son of her sister Marie-Sylvie, whose portrait Corot later painted (Robaut, no. 590). Robert shared Corot’s passion for Italy, and in the spring of 1840 the artist gave him enthusiastic advice about his upcoming honeymoon there. In the summer of 1842, Corot visited Robert at Mantes and painted six decorative murals for his friend’s bathroom based on his own recollections of Italy (nos. 435-440). He also gave Robert a view of Naples that he had exhibited in the Salon of 1841 (no. 377) and in 1845 painted larger versions for him of at least two open-air Italian studies that he still had in his studio: the present canvas and a view of the Roman Forum (no. 69). Around the same time, Corot produced a portrait of Robert’s first child François-Louis (no. 589), as well as a view of Mme Osmond’s garden at Rosny in which the young boy is seen seated on the ground with a child’s gardening tools (no. 400).
Corot continued to visit Robert at Mantes frequently during the 1850s and 1860s and painted numerous views of the town’s medieval cathedral and stone bridge. In 1857, he also made an oval portrait of his friend’s youngest child Maurice (Robaut, no. 1052). After Robert’s death in 1875, his four sons maintained the house at Mantes intact, including the collection of paintings by Corot. In a 1924 letter to Monet, the art historian Louis Gillet described it as “a delightful old house, full of Corots. Just imagine, there are about thirty of them, from every period, and even a small bathroom decorated with admirable Italian landscapes painted in oils directly on the wall. This house is one of the gems of France, the way Fragonard’s house in Grasse once was” (R. Walter, “Documents Corot conservés dans la famille Robert,” Archives de l’art français, 1986, p. 305, letter XIV, n. 2). When Christian Robert, the last surviving brother, died in 1926, he bequeathed several paintings by Corot to the Louvre, including the portraits of François-Louis and Maurice, the 1841 view of Naples, the Italian-themed mural decoration of the bathroom, and a studio painting of Florence based on an 1834 open-air sketch that Corot had left to the elder Robert in his will (Robaut, no. 310).
The Rockefellers acquired the present painting from Wildenstein in 1957. As David Rockefeller later recalled, “We were shown a number of attractive pictures, but one that caught my eye particularly was this Corot scene of Venice… The Venice picture attracted me not only because it was very beautiful in itself, but because its size and shape, which was rather long and low, were precisely what we had been looking for to replace the Cézanne Jas de Bouffan, which we had over our mantel in the library at Hudson Pines. We had bought the Cézanne seven years earlier but it did not make a lasting impression on us and did not seem to be right for the spot. We decided to try the Corot. It went beautifully over the mantel and has been there ever since” (M. Potter, op. cit., p. 107).