During the 19e century, Venice wowed American artists, collectors and tourists with sparkling glass goblets.
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth relates this seduction with the national traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Muranonow visible until 9/11.
The exhibition features over 140 works by a range of American artists such as John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Robert Frederick Blum, William Merritt Chase, Louise Cox and Thomas Moran. Rarely seen Venetian glass mosaic portraits and glass goblets, vases, and urns created by leading Murano glassmakers complement the paintings, etchings, and prints, demonstrating Venetian influence on the American art scene.
After the decline of the political and economic power of Venice and its occupation in the 18e century, the floating city revived its centuries-old tradition of glassmaking when Antonio Salviati began restoring the mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica. He created the Salviati glassware business, reintroducing Venetian art to the world.
“It’s really a story of a reinvention and a revival of the glass tradition,” said Maggie Adler, curator of paintings, sculpture and works on paper as well as curator of the Carter presentation of this exhibit.
Venetian craftsmen revived old techniques, copying Renaissance designs to hone technical abilities before creating new designs. These new styles have intrigued tourists, collectors and artists around the world.
“They’re creating innovation, but they’re also basing their work on the very, very elaborate patterns of Venetian glass and that’s starting to pique people’s interest,” Adler said. “Where there is a market and wherever there are collectors, artists will go. So really, Sargent and Whistler and this generation of artists are the first in a long time to be expat artists headquartered in Venice or including Venice on the Grand Tour.
Sargent and Whistler respected the ingenuity of Venetian glassmakers as museum quality work. In Venice, Sargent was hosted by his relatives, Daniel and Ariana Curtis, at the Palazzo Barbaro. Her Venetian work, often darker and more psychological, depicts women working in the bead-making industry.
“He experiences Venice like a local,” Adler said. “He’s looking for those hidden alleys and neighborhoods in Venice that you stumble upon that hold mysteries.”
Whistler came to Venice to recuperate after successfully suing British art critic John Ruskin for libel. He was fascinated by the burning furnaces of Venetian glassware that glowed at night.
“He travels to Venice on commission and finds it very well suited to his way of doing printmaking in that he finds a lot of scenes, again, in the back alleys of the canals which allow him to juxtapose dark and light and shadow and light,” Adler said.
Benefactors, collectors, and philanthropists also nurtured Venice’s global artistic influence, bringing Venice to America in unexpected ways.
“You don’t even have to go to Venice to see Venice in America,” Adler said.
Isabella Stewart Gardner visited Curtis’ Palazzo Barbaro in 1884 and fell in love with Venice. Working with art advisor Bernard Berenson, Gardner began acquiring European masterpieces during his travels. When considering a gallery design for the Gardner Collection, Palazzo Barbaro served as inspiration. The Gardners traveled throughout Italy to collect columns, windows, and doors from the Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance periods to incorporate into what is now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
While Jane and Leland Stanford visit Venice, they befriend Maurizio Camerino, director of the Antonio Salviati studios. Camerino spoke English, and when the Stanfords’ young son died of typhoid in Florence, he rushed to their aid. Years later, after establishing Stanford University in memory of their son, Jane Stanford commissioned Camerino to create mosaics for the university’s memorial church.
Venetian craftsmen became marketers. Venetian women created manuals explaining how middle-class Americans could decorate their homes with small pieces of art and affordable Venetian trinkets.
“So they’re creating a sort of demand for Venetian art to export to the United States,” Adler said.
Small mosaic portraits of US presidents were created in hopes of inspiring commissions for federal buildings. Wealthy Americans could purchase Venetian glass from Tiffany & Co. Venetian glass also appeared at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
“At the World’s Fair in Chicago, they built this big fountain, and they have Venetian gondola rides on the fountain, so Winslow Homer, who doesn’t go to Venice, sees the gondola rides at the World’s Fair of Chicago and did a painting based on that,” Adler said.
To accompany the exhibit, the Carter invited Texas-based artist Justin Ginsberg to create a site-specific glassmaking project on the museum’s lawn.
“There’s a very real, living artistic glass movement in the United States now,” Adler said. “I also really like the show. How can people know what’s going on inside the Amon Carter just by walking past it? One of the ways to do this is to have someone on the front lawn who represents the quality of indoor art outside.
With Ginsberg’s project, the love affair with Venetian glass continues, expanding the definition of American art.
“The understanding and the possibilities are so much richer by looking at American art in a global context,” Adler said.
Learn more: Amon Carter Museum of American Art