A genial, extrovert, giant of a man, popular in artistic and social circles, Val Prinsep belonged to a leading Anglo-Indian family that had already produced several talented amateur artists. He was born in Calcutta on St Valentine's Day 1838; his father, Thoby Prinsep, was a distinguished Indian civil servant, and his mother, the redoubtable Sara, was one of the celebrated Pattle sisters, who also included Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, and Virginia, Countess Somers, one of the great beauties of the day. The Prinseps returned to England in 1843, and in 1851 took a lease on Little Holland House in Kensington, where for nearly twenty-five years Sarah presided over a salon frequented by celebrities in the worlds of art, literature, politics and science. Val received his earliest art education from G.F. Watts, who lived in the house as its genius-in-residence. By 1857 he had fallen under the spell of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, two of his mother's 'lions', and was helping them to paint murals illustrating the Morte d'Arthur in the Oxford Union. He then went on to study under Charles Gleyre in Paris, where he encountered Whistler, Poynter, George Du Maurier and other members of the so-called 'Paris Gang'. He appears as Taffy in Trilby, Du Maurier's romanticised account of the vie de bohème, published in 1894. In the 1860s Prinsep came under the influence of Frederic Leighton, his neighbour in the colony of artists which was rapidly establishing itself to the south-west of Holland Park, and in 1879 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, of which Leighton had become President the previous year. This was probably in recognition of his labours on an enormous canvas depicting the durbar held by Lord Lytton at Delhi in 1877 to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India. The picture was exhibited at the R.A. in 1880 and is now in St James's Palace.
The present picture, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1866, has almost certainly been cut down at either side, leaving some of the figures truncated. Lot 294 would appear to be the section cut from the left (or the main part of it; thin lateral strips still seem to be missing), while the piece cut from the right is either lost or destroyed. In its original state, the picture must have been considerably longer, explaining why both the reviews quoted below refer to it as 'large'.
When the picture appeared at the RA, the catalogue explained that it showed 'a fête held in the public gardens of Venice during the month of October.' Prinsep had been in Venice in October 1859. He was travelling with Burne-Jones, and they were seeing the sights for the first time under the guidance of Ruskin. As Prinsep recalled many years later, 'Ruskin in hand, we sought out every cornice, design, or monument praised by him. We bowed before Tintoret and scoffed at Sansovino. A broken pediment was a thing of horror!' (Magazine of Art, 1904, p. 417). It is possible that Prinsep saw the fête on the Lido at this time, and was drawing on memories of it seven years later, although he had almost certainly been back to Venice during the intervening period. His painting A Venetian Water-Carrier in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, which is dated October 1863, may represent such a visit, while a lifetime's habit of returning to Venice is suggested by the two Venetian subjects which he showed at the RA as late as 1903-4.
Whatever the case, the picture may be seen as a rather late expression of the Venetian idiom that was so dominant in Prinsep's circle in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The influences behind this phenomenon were complex, but almost no artist was unaffected; G.F. Watts, D.G. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Leighton and many others reflected the prevailing ethos. Prinsep was already exploring the possibilities of Venetian modes in pictures like Il Barbagianni (private collection) and My Lady Betty (Christie's, London, 11 June 2002, lot 117), exhibited at the RA respectively in 1863 and 1864; but in these, as in contemporary works by the above-mentioned artists, not to mention photographs by his aunt, Mrs Cameron, his models were mainly the sumptuous female figures of Titian or Palma Vecchio. In the idealised picnic scene of La Festa di Lido, he seems to have been thinking more of Giorgione, making Burne-Jones's Green Summer of 1864 (private collection) a better comparison. The two pictures are not only Giorgionesque in composition but 'Venetian' in their strong sense of colour.
In fact by the time Prinsep came to paint La Festa di Lido the Venetian style was giving way to a resurgent classicism. We can gauge how far this had come by noting that Leighton's well-known painting The Syracusan Bride (private collection; see L. and R. Ormond, Lord Leighton, 1975, pl. 121) was shown the RA the same year as Prinsep's picture. La Festa di Lido itself both reflects this development and bears comparison with the Leighton in its lack of spatial depth and frieze-like composition, a feature which would have been far more pronounced before the canvas was cut down. Unlike Leighton, however, Prinsep had not yet finished with the more overt forms of Venetian imagery. In Leonora di Mantua (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), shown at the RA in 1873, he painted a handsome female model in sixteenth-century costume. The result is an academic version of one of Rossetti's most 'Venetian' works, some Aesthetic arrangement of form and colour modelled by Fanny Cornforth or Alexa Wilding looking sultry and exotic.
Prinsep's drawings betray the same tendencies. Two studies of young girls in Italian costume in the late Brinsley Ford's collection (op. cit., RBI 321-2) seem to date from the mid-1860s and may well have been made in Venice. A study of the head of a young man that Julian Hartnoll had for sale in 1980 (loc. cit., illus. in catalogue), though it does not correspond exactly with any head in our picture, looks as if it might have been drawn from one of the male models, especially the handsome youth holding a flask of wine on the right.
The picture fascinated critics when it appeared at the RA. They commented on it at length, even if they found fault with certain aspects. F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, thought that 'Mr V. Prinsep's large picture....would be highly interesting if only it had 'more vitality...The figures group themselves regularly and inartistically, rather in the manner of a stage composition.' There were, however, exceptions. Referring to figures that have since been cut away, but one of which almost certainly survives in lot 294, he continued:
The tall girl with her hand on her hip on the right of the design, and that other who saunters towards us on the left show a good deal of Italian affectation and consciousness of grace...The colouring, which is generally harmonious and sober, and very original in its way, is marred, if not ruined, by being what artists call 'dirty' and muddled. We fail to see that it was worth while to paint the man in front who holds out his arm or the woman who faces us in the centre of the picture. Nothing but beautiful treatment can make commonplace, still less vulgar, elements worth looking at.
It is always interesting to see what worried contemporary critics. So often they fretted about things that we take in our stride today. Tom Taylor, in a splendidly pompous and patronising piece in the Times, was as exercised as Stephens about the picture's 'vulgar elements' and a certain awkwardness in the composition, although he had none of Stephens's reservations about its sense of colour. 'Mr Prinsep's large picture...', he wrote,
shows a delicate perception of beauty in the female heads, a fine and original sentiment of colour, a courage of hand, and a largeness of execution, all remarkable in the work of so young a man. [Prinsep was twenty-eight at the time.] But Mr Prinsep, as is to be expected in an immature painter, shows the defects complementary of (sic) his qualities in a very striking way. His strong sense of beauty in female faces renders him careless of beauty in all beside; his feeling for colour has made him indifferent about form; his scorn for conventional rules of picture-making seems to have left him without respect for due considerations of composition, and his power has been allowed to degenerate sometimes into slovenliness, sometimes into coarseness. In short, his work is full of imperfection, some of it apparently wilful, but it has merits which are not common in our school, and if the faults are not passed over too indulgently, the power should develop into something very far above the average. In this picture, which has a fine luminous quality in its colour as a whole, and a sober richness in the parts, which it would be difficult to surpass, Mr Prinsep seems to have committed the mistake of treating on a large scale a subject only fitted for cabinet size. There is certainly beauty in these women and girls, beauty of the peculiar blonde, soft, rounded, Venetian type, half sad, half voluptuous, but the men are mean in frame and poor in feature. The dresses, enjoyments, and expressions are commonplace, if not sordid and ignoble. These types of the Venetian 'masses' may be very innocently happy over their baked pumpkin and cheese, their red wine, and their reed pipes, but they do not deserve to have so much room made for them. It is only a boorish entertainment, after all, Venetian al fresco as it is - a Teniers feast transferred to the Lido; and the beauty of the women of itself does not remove the sense of squalor and low life.
It has been suggested that the elderly bearded man on the left may be some patriarchal member of Venice's Jewish community, rather like the venerable Parsee who was introduced by Holman Hunt into his picture May Morning on Magdalen Tower (1888-90; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). This is possible, although the figure does not look particularly Semitic and the Jewish quarter in Venice was historically situated in Cannareggio, not on the Lido.