Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dreaming of Venice

Nineteenth-century folk artists from rural communities often had lives that were circumscribed by the limits of transportation and the family and community ties that kept them close to home. This was especially true of young women. The one exception to this rule may have been when or if the young lady was sent to a finishing school in a town or city. We have a terrific collection of watercolors and needlework pictures in the Fenimore Art Museum from female academies in New England and New York. Looking at these works, I always marvel at the expansive world view of the young artists, as well as the freshness and creativity of the design.

This mid-19th-century watercolor of Venice is one of my favorites. It is about 14” x 19”, and was one of the masterpieces found in the barn on the property of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn in Newtonville, Massachusetts in the 1950s (see my previous post on this collection). The artist, who remains unknown, probably worked from a print source, most likely an engraving in a travel guide that her instructor made available to her in watercolor class. Her reworking of the design is remarkable. Comparing the watercolor to some engravings of the same scene shows how she sharpened the image into a bold, linear composition, and added coloration that emphasized the patterns of the geometric shapes in the exotic architecture of the city. The famous Rialto Bridge dominates the scene, of course, and is executed with a striking angularity that plays nicely off the rounded arch of its underside.

All in all, a picture that evokes a far off place in a time when only the wealthy could think about traveling there. The artist, however, left us one clue to her New England origins: the costumes of the figures in the painting are distinctly local. Why bother recreating such a marvelous destination without placing a part of yourself in it?

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