During the 19th century, Venice romanced American artists, collectors, and tourists with sparkling glass goblets.
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth chronicles this seduction with the nationally touring exhibition organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano, now on view through September 11.
The exhibition features more than 140 artworks by an array 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 cups, vases and urns created by Murano’s leading glassmakers complement the paintings, prints and etchings, demonstrating Venetian influence on the American art scene.
Following the decline of Venice’s political and economic power and its occupation during the 18th century, the floating city revived its centuries old glass-making tradition when Antonio Salviati began restoring the mosaics at St. Mark’s Basilica. He established the Salviati glassmaking firm, re-introducing Venetian artistry to the world.
“This is really the story of reinvention and a revival of glass tradition,” said Maggie Adler, Curator of Paintings, Sculpture and Works on Paper as well as the curator of the Carter’s presentation of this exhibition.
Venetian artisans resuscitated old techniques, copying Renaissance designs to perfect technical capabilities before creating new designs. These new styles intrigued tourists, collectors, and artists from around the world.
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“They’re creating innovation, but they’re also basing their work on the very, very elaborate models of Venetian glass and that starts getting people’s interest,” Adler said. “Where there’s a market and wherever there is collectors, artists will go. So really Sargent and Whistler and that generation of artists is the first in a long time to be expatriate artists headquartering themselves in Venice or including Venice on the Grand Tour.”
Sargent and Whistler respected Venetian glassmakers’ ingenuity as museum-quality work. In Venice, Sargent was hosted by his relatives, Daniel and Ariana Curtis, at Palazzo Barbaro. His Venetian work, often darker and more psychological, depicts women working in the bead-making industry.
“He’s experiencing Venice like a local,” Adler said. “He’s seeking out these hidden alleyways and these areas of Venice that you happen upon by accident and there are mysteries involved.”
Whistler came to Venice to recover after successfully suing British art critic John Ruskin for defamation. He was fascinated by the Venetian glass factory’s burning furnaces glowing at night.
“He goes to Venice on commission and finds it is very well-suited to his way of print-making in that he finds lots of scenes, again, in the back alleyways off of the canals that 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 the Curtis’ Palazzo Barbaro in 1884 and fell in love with Venice. Working with art adviser Bernard Berenson, Gardner began acquiring European masterpieces during her travels. When considering the design of a gallery for the Gardner collection, Palazzo Barbaro served as inspiration. The Gardners toured Italy to gather columns, windows, and doorways 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 visited Venice, they befriended Maurizio Camerino, the manager 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 their son’s memory, Jane Stanford commissioned Camerino to create mosaics for the university’s Memorial Church.
Venetian artisans became expert marketers. Venetian women created manuals advising how a middle-class Americans could decorate their home with small, affordable pieces of Venetian art and trinkets.
“So, they’re creating a kind of demand for Venetian art to be exported to the United States,” Adler said.
Small mosaic portraits of American presidents were created in hopes of inspiring commissions for federal buildings. Wealthy Americans could buy Venetian glass at Tiffany & Co. Venetian glass also appeared at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
“At the Chicago World’s Fair, they built this big fountain, and they have Venetian gondola rides on the fountain so Winslow Homer, who doesn’t travel to Venice, sees the gondola rides at the Chicago World’s Fair and makes a painting based on that,” Adler said.
To accompany the exhibition, 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 and lively artistic glass movement in the United States now,” Adler said. “I also really like spectacle. How can people tell what’s going on inside the Amon Carter just by driving by? One of the ways to do that is to have someone on the front lawn who represents the quality of the art inside on the outside.”
With Ginsberg’s project, the love affair with Venetian glass continues, broadening the definition of American art.
“The understanding and possibilities are so much richer by examining America art in a global context,” Adler said.
Learn more: Amon Carter Museum of American Art