Venetian Gondoliers is a serene yet aesthetically rigorous depiction of the milky green waters of the Venetian lagoon, dotted with black gondolas. Dr. William H. Gerdts notes, "Probably the ultimate pictorial and literary trope for Venice in the nineteenth century, even more so with the arrival of large steamships, was the image of the gondola, often carrying passengers, artists and others...Robert Blum was not immune to the seductiveness of the gondola image." ("The International Milieu," Sargent's Venice, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Connecticut, 2006, p. 174)
On April 14th, 1880, Blum, along with fellow artist Alexander Drake, left New York aboard the ship Arizona headed for London. Blum traveled from London to Paris, Rome and Pisa before arriving in Venice on May 28th. While personal letters home to his family are characterized by Blum's rather blasé and uninterested tone regarding most of the European capitals he visited, in Venice, everything changed. Blum formed an abiding love for and fascination with Venice's unique patina and engaging contradictions which informed his depictions of the mysterious floating city from his initial visit in 1880 until his last trip in 1889. Blum's initial decision to travel to Venice was not surprising, as the water-bound city was filled with American avant-garde painters; the romantic and mysterious charms of the city made it a magnet for many artists and writers.
Bruce Weber writes of Blum's initial Venetian visit, "Early in his stay, Blum re-established his association with Frank Duveneck, and became friendly with the members of Duveneck's large class of American students." (Robert Blum (1857-1903) and His Milieu, vol. I, Ph.D dissertation, City University of New York, 1985, p. 104). Blum rented a room at the Casa Yankowitz, where many of the "Duveneck Boys" took rooms. The palazzo was located at 2140 Campo San Biaggio, which "jutted out squarely at the lower end of the Riva degli Schiavoni [with] all of Venice in front of it," (J. Pennell, as quoted in Robert Blum (1857-1903) and His Milieu, vol. I, p. 105) James McNeill Whistler arrived that summer and he too took a room at the Casa Yankowitz. Blum was already well familiar with Whistler's work prior to the trip and the arrival of the artist was momentous in Blum's career. Whistler was in Venice to create etchings for a commission from the Fine Arts Society and revive his career. Whistler sketched views of the canal from every room of the palazzo and the view from Blum's room was a particular favorite. Blum wrote to his family, "Whistler is here and I know him well, and he is very busy making an etching from my window and he seems very much interested in me and though I am sometimes dissatisfied with my work he always encourages me." (After Whistler, p. 40)
This encounter with Whistler would have a profound immediate and lasting impact on Blum's style. Going and Coming (1880, location unknown), which was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1881 and closely relates to the present work, was described by a reviewer for The Nation: "Mr. Blum's blue picture is the most attractive thing in the Exhibition, to our mind...Black gondolas are 'going and coming' on the unruffled surfaces of the Adriatic, beneath a sky whose blue depths of perfectly cloudless space are reflected in the water below, at the far horizon appears the low and faint mirage of Venice, the roseate yellow of which is, excepting some costumery in a gondola, the only color that relieves the black and blue effect of the picture. The whole scheme is strongly individual, and executed with a refined delicacy of workmanship extremely agreeable to meet with here." (as quoted in Robert Blum (1857-1903) and His Milieu, vol. I, p. 124) The qualities described in the above painting are the same as those found in Venetian Gondoliers and each work, with its high horizon lines and subtle, harmonious gradations of tone reflects Blum's unique assimilation of Whistler's aesthetic.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: The Solent, 1866. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.