On nearly yearly visits to the City of Water during his artistic career, John Singer Sargent formed an abiding love for and fascination with Venice’s unique contradictory character, which inspired his depictions of its buildings and canals for over thirty years. Executed in 1913, San Geremia is a dynamic example of the Venice Sargent painted on his final visit to the mysterious floating city.
Sargent’s infatuation with Venice spanned the majority of his life and came to reflect many of the dichotomies and contradictions inherent to the city. According to a note in the margin of the sketchbook he regularly filled with imagery from his vast travels, the artist first encountered Venice on a trip with his itinerant family in 1870 at the age of fourteen. During this initial visit, “Sargent was undoubtedly influenced by the tastes and preoccupations 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, garnering significant critical praise for his commissioned portraits. Tiring of the demands of his wealthy sitters, he began 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. Their home, Palazzo Barbaro, had become 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 subsequent annual excursions to the city, 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.
In September 1913, Sargent stayed at the Palazzo for what would be his final trip to Venice, producing a half-dozen works during his short stay. In San Geremia, one of these last Venetian paintings, Sargent depicts the view across the Grand Canal to the church of San Geremia and the Palazzo Labia. Painted from a gondola on the left side of the canal, the composition is unique in Sargent’s oeuvre as one of the very few panoramic views he painted after 1900. Rather than focusing only on small architectural details, San Geremia shows an expansive stretch of buildings including, from left to right, the Palazzo Flangini, the San Geremia’s two façades, the mouth of the Cannaregio Canal, the end façade of the Palazzo Labia and the Palazzo Emo.
While unique in its comprehensive viewpoint, San Geremia is quintessential Sargent in its dynamic use of angles and fascination with architectural flourish. Richard Ormond explains, “The artist’s line of vision is centered on the junction where the two sides meet. The picture is an inventory of the architecture Sargent loved best, a succession of ecclesiastical and secular classical facades that look as if they had been orchestrated by a master planner.” (Sargent’s Venice, p. 74) Direct and indirect light reflect onto these textured buildings, glinting off the central dome to create a suggestion of detail through loose, expressive brushwork.
San Geremia is a superb example of Sargent’s Venetian paintings that manifests both his love of the city and his distinctive approach to its intricate grandeur. “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)