Although Sargent was an inveterate traveller, it was Venice where he felt most at home. His childhood friend, the author Vernon Lee, observed of Venice that, 'the very beauty and poetry in Venice, its shimmering colours and sliding forms, as of a past whose heroism is overlaid by suspicion and pleasure seeking...the things which Venice offers to the eye and the fancy conspire to melt and mar our soul...with the enervation also of 'too much' magnificence and squalor' (as quoted in B. Robertson, Sargent and Italy, Los Angeles, California, 2003, p. 13). It was this combination of its present day beauty and its scandalous past that drew Sargent to Venice time and time again, producing his best works including The Grand Canal, Venice (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
Painted from a gondola on the Rio di Ognissanti, its prow visible in the foreground, here Sargent perfectly captures the beauty and bustling atmosphere of a Venetian summer. Figures are seen to the left walking along the Fondamenta Bonlini, whilst dominating the skyline with its instantly recognisable dome and two towers is I Gesuati, a subject which fascinated Sargent. However, whilst he painted several watercolours of the facade of the great church facing the Zattere, this is the only side view.
The drawing is inscribed to Paolo Tosti (1846-1916), an Italian tenor who became a much-lauded composer of Romantic songs. He arrived in London in 1875, and with the help of powerful friends became Master of Music to Queen Victoria in 1880, before becoming Professor of singing at the Royal Academy of Music in 1894. He became a British citizen in 1906, and was knighted for his achievements in 1908.
Samuel Joseph collected old master paintings, tapestries, and other works of art. In his retirement, he devoted himself to studying art and collecting pictures, which he lent widely for exhibitions. The present drawing was inherited by Joseph's daughter Nellie, whose husband, Moses Nissim, was a cousin of Sir Philip and Sybil Sassoon, great friends of Sargent who owned a large collection of his work.