Monet painted this resplendent view of Venice in the fall of 1908, during his only journey to the floating city, La Serenissima, long renowned for its gloriously effulgent qualities of light—and for this reason, the place where the history of painting as an art composed first and foremost of color, brilliant color, had its origins. Monet, then sixty-eight years old and France’s most widely acclaimed artist, painted thirty-seven canvases during his ten-week stay there, works prized for their virtuoso evocation of the city’s shimmering, multi-colored light as it plays across ornate stone buildings and gently rippling canals. “In Monet’s Venice, substance often seems to dissolve into reflection, while light appears as material and palpable as the objects it falls upon,” John Walker has written. “Then churches, palaces, and bridges are transmitted into curtains of colored light, wavering and trembling in their aqueous mirror; and nature, transformed by this amphibious atmosphere, becomes the imitator of art” (National Gallery of Art, New York, 1995, p. 492).
The history of Monet’s Venetian campaign begins in September 1908, when the artist received a letter from his friend Mary Hunter, inviting him and his wife Alice to stay with her at the opulent Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. For the past four years, Monet had barely strayed from his home at Giverny, wholly absorbed in painting his lily pond. “The landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession,” he admitted to Gustave Geffroy (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1997, p. 47). The invitation from Mrs. Hunter—which arrived just as cool autumn nights and a spell of unsettled weather brought the flowering of the lilies to a close—provided Monet with exactly the impetus he needed to break from the cloistered world of the pond. “The steady roll of Monet’s elemental wheel of light, water, earth, and stone had slowed somewhat during the prolonged scrutiny of his minute pool,” Vivian Russell has written. “He was ready to lift his gaze and contemplate a wider horizon” (Monet’s Landscapes, London, 2000, p. 143). On 25 September, Monet sent his canvases and paints ahead to Venice; six days later, he and Alice disembarked in the lagoon city.
Although Alice was immediately smitten with Venice, Monet had his qualms about painting in a city that occupied such an eminent place in the history of art. From an aesthetic standpoint, Venice was a loaded commodity—“too beautiful to be painted,” the artist lamented shortly after his arrival (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1997, p. 49). In addition to the long line of venerated colorists that Venice had produced, the city had attracted scores of foreign artists, including Turner, Whistler, Sargent, Manet, Boudin, Signac, and of course, Renoir. Painters in the tradition of Guardi and Canaletto also plied their trade there, producing paradigmatic vedute for visitors on the Grand Tour. With his elusive and virtually abstract water-lily paintings, Monet had set out to prove that his art, more than three decades after the First Impressionist Exhibition and with Cubism on the ascendant, had not lost its revolutionary, transformative character. In Venice, how could he resist the seductions of the purely picturesque, while still paying homage to the city’s artistic legacy?
Monet lost no time in staking out new and challenging visual territory for Venice. “Intended as a holiday after the creation of some hundred water-lily paintings over the preceding five years, the visit was quickly transformed into a period of intensive creativity,” Paul Tucker has declared (Monet in the Twentieth Century, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1998, p. 178). By the second week in October, Monet had adopted a rigorous schedule, positioning his easel by 8 am each morning and allowing himself just a short respite for lunch. “I am happy now to see Monet so full of zeal, and doing such great things,” Alice wrote to her daughter Germaine, “and between you and me, something besides the inevitable water-lilies” (quoted in op. cit., 1997, p. 52). Although the couple had planned to remain in Venice for only a short time and to return the following year, Monet repeatedly delayed their departure, starting a new painting almost every day until he had a full three dozen in train. “Venice has got hold of him and won’t let go,” Alice wrote to Geffroy in mid-November (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op. cit., 1996, vol. 1, p. 387).
As he had several years earlier in London, Monet selected a limited group of motifs to paint on this campaign. Rather than charting the changes in light on a given subject from morning to evening, however, he opted to paint each site at a single moment in the day, eliminating time as a variable. This radically anti-Impressionist strategy allowed him to focus his pictorial explorations on the famous Venetian haze, which either heightens the colors of the prism or unites them in a muffled harmony. The present canvas—resplendent in shades of teal, lavender, and pink—is one of a trio of views that Monet painted of a narrow canal known as the Rio della Salute, named for the nearby church of Santa Maria della Salute (Wildenstein, nos. 1761-1763). All three are late afternoon scenes, the light entering from low at the left and transmuting the interlocking forms of the motif into an abstract mosaic of jewel-like color.
Earlier in his stay at Venice, Monet had painted six panoramic views of the domed Salute, seen from the steps of the Palazzo Barbaro on the opposite bank of the Grand Canal. Now, he enlisted a gondola to bring him almost to the foot of that iconic church, yet selected an intimate and unexpected vantage point in which the structure is entirely hidden from view—at the southern end of the Rio della Salute, looking north toward one of two small, arched bridges that span the canal. On the left is a multi-story house façade with ornate windows and balconies, and in the distance is the apsidal east end of the church of San Gregorio. The garden wall of the Seminario Patriarcale, with tree branches overhanging it, is visible at the right; just out of sight beyond that, around the bend in the waterway, is Santa Maria. “More so than any other group,” Joachim Pissarro has written, “the Rio della Salute series emphasizes one’s perspective of Venice from within its meandering canals as they cut through the awesome slabs of erect architecture on each side” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1997, p. 172).
The paintings of the Rio della Salute are among the very last that Monet began in Venice, as autumn gave way to winter. After more than two months of intense and fruitful work, he and Alice finally left to return to Giverny on 7 December. On their final 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. It is so beautiful, but one has to see reason: many factors force us to return home. The only consolation I have is the thought of coming back here next year” (quoted in ibid., p. 53). Monet never did return to Venice, however, and the thirty-seven paintings from the 1908 campaign would prove to be the very last that he ever undertook outside of his gardens at Giverny—a fitting culmination to nearly twenty-five years of indefatigable travel in search of new pictorial challenges, by which he repeatedly proved his worth as one of France’s foremost exponents of modernism.
Monet arrived home at Giverny brimming with self-assurance. Although he described the canvases that he brought back from Venice as “nothing but sketches, beginnings,” which would have to be worked to completion in the studio, he was sufficiently confident in them to negotiate an exclusive deal with the Bernheim-Jeune brothers for the bulk of the corpus once it was finished (quoted in ibid., p. 53). A month later, he informed Durand-Ruel that the dealer could finally announce “without fear” the inaugural exhibition of his water-lily paintings, which he had postponed repeatedly during the previous two years. The trip to Venice, he explained, had allowed him to see his lilies with a better eye, and he declared with absolute certainty, “I will be ready” (quoted in P. Tucker, exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 49).
Monet intended to return to his Venetian canvases as soon as the Nymphéas show closed, but a sequence of devastating events intervened. The Epte flooded, causing serious damage to his gardens; Monet learned that he had a cataract in his right eye; and most shattering of all, Alice took ill and died. It was not until October 1911 that Monet finally took up the views of Venice once again. Now, the ideas about time and history that had informed the paintings from the outset grew even more profound. The delicate, unified palette that softens and dematerializes the architecture of Venice—a city at once timeless in its splendor and redolent with power long since faded—lends the paintings a palpable sense of reverie and introspection. “Finished far from the sites they represented,” Tucker has written, “and years after the initial encounter, the paintings became meditations on the nature of experience, the practice of art, and the multiple levels of human understanding as much as they are about Venice and its particulars” (ibid., p. 57).
In March 1912, Monet released a first batch of Venice pictures to the Bernheim-Jeune brothers and Durand-Ruel, who pooled their funds to purchase them. Two months later, he exhibited twenty-nine paintings from the series, including all three views of the Rio della Salute, at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, where they met with unequivocal acclaim. Even Apollinaire, who had only recently trumpeted the advent of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism, had nothing but praise for Monet’s achievement. In November 1912, Durand-Ruel sold the present painting to Ellen Henderson, the sister of New Orleans sugar magnate Hunt Henderson, who was the most formidable collector in the American South at that time of Impressionism and early modernism. The present painting was thus among the very earliest of Monet’s Venetian views to enter an American collection.