Painted in 1884, at the height of Frank Duveneck's creative output in Italy, Venetian Fruit Market, is one of the artist's most successful and beautifully executed genre scenes. While the innovative painter enjoyed his most prolific years in Italy capturing the architecture, countryside and people, he first developed his spontaneous and lively approach to painting while studying at the Bavarian Royal Academy in Munich in the early 1870s. Duveneck quickly excelled through the perfunctory classes and experimented with new techniques inspired primarily from the Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century masters, most notably Frans Hals. It was not, however, until he traveled to Italy that the young artist developed his mature style and began painting pictures of the quality of Venetian Fruit Market.
Duveneck first traveled to Italy in 1879 and was immediately inspired by the beauty and culture of the place. The plethora of new subjects, crystalline light and tonic air had an almost instantaneous effect on the artist's style. Duveneck quickly shed the dark, rich palette and heavy compositions of his Munich years, to embrace a more painterly technique and capture his picturesque surroundings in bright, colorful and airy compositions, "that signaled a stylistic metamorphosis of great promise." (R. Neuhaus, Unsuspected Genius: The Art and Life of Frank Duveneck, San Francisco, California, 1987, p. 67)
Perhaps most important to Duveneck's artistic transformation was his relationship with celebrated expatriate painter John Singer Sargent, whom he met in Italy. Sargent's work, "induced Duveneck's stylistic transformation to a palette of bright color...Sargent admired Duveneck, who correspondingly found Sargent's methods both in oil and watercolor inspirational. Regarding fluid alla prima execution, their painting skills were comparable...Sargent's nimble, cameralike recording of sunlit architecture, with luminous colbalt and purple shadows, influenced Duveneck's handling of sunny Tuscany landscapes... his painting became fresher and less self-conscious. Duveneck's close association with Whistler and Sargent, the two leading exponents of the strongest and most esthetically potent movement of the late nineteenth century, had the immediate effect of an artistic rebirth." (Unsuspected Genius: The Art and Life of Frank Duveneck, pp. 72-75)
Duveneck was strongly drawn to the native Italian population and depicted them in many of his paintings as in Venetian Fruit Market. "The people of his Italian studies have an emotional appeal which is sometimes lacking in his Munich pictures. Frequently there is sentiment and a rather subtle wistfulness which, however, never breaks down into maudlin sentimentality. During this period, when Duveneck painted so-called popular subjects, such as flower girls and water carriers, he did not weaken, but tackled them in a realistic manner with emphasis on the recording of his visual impressions." (W.H. Siple in Exhibition of the Work of Frank Duveneck, exhibition catalogue, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1936, p. 11)
Infused with rich light and varying textures, Venetian Fruit Market exhibits many of the tenets of plein air painting. Duveneck employs a strong attention to light and color in this portrayal of two women in native dress at an outdoor market. He characteristically uses thinned washes of oil to denote the ground while employing quick, spontaneous brushstrokes to develop the architecture, figures and fruit stand. He also highlights the scumbled surface of the brick wall with thick swaths of white paint. Meanwhile, the bright, bold colors of the highly developed fruit baskets are in stark contrast to the rest of the composition. These contrasts of texture and pigment add complexity and vigor to the composition. Sargent's influence is evident in Duveneck's airy brushstrokes and use of color to define form, yet his Munich training is also present in elements of the work. The rich use of various tones of brown to define the interior of the building recalls earlier works and gives the composition depth, while his skill as a draftsman exerts itself in the still life elements of the window and fruit stand.
Emblematic of Duveneck's best work Venetian Fruit Market incorporates the various influences of the artist's career into a powerful and complex composition that is simultaneously airy and structured.