"Water-Rambles" on the Lagoon: William Stanley Haseltine in Venice

by Andrea Henderson Fahnestock



Despite Goethe's claim that "Venice can only be compared with itself," generations of visitors have struggled to describe the city's allure. It was likened by nineteenth -century writers to a dream, a mirage, a vision, a phantasm, and the sense of illusion that underlies these descriptions attests to the unknowable nature of Venice -- a function of its mutability, insubstantiality, ephemerality. Longfellow's "white phantom city" stirs the imagination of every visitor, evoking something different in each.

....If the number of works William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900) made of Venice may be taken as evidence, the city's lagoons, boats, light, and atmosphere were among his favorite subjects in Italy. Haseltine spent the better part of his career based in Rome, observing and recording the coast and countryside of Italy. Philadelphia-born, he made his first trip abroad in 1855, the year after his graduation from Harvard, and spent the next three years studying and sketching, initially in and around Düsseldorf and later in Switzerland and Italy. Something about the light and landscape of Italy must have taken hold of his imagination during this trip; after seven successful years in New York from 1859 to 1866 -- during which he gained fame as a painter of the New England coast -- he left behind his native country and sailed for Europe. By the fall of 1867 he had settled in Rome, rarely returning to America for more than a few months at a time.

....The current touring retrospective exhibition of Haseltine's works, organized by The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, [1] attempts to end the long-standing segregation of Haseltine's American works from those made after his expatriation. Only by reintegrating Haseltine's best European works with his familiar crystalline portraits of the coasts of Narragansett and Nahant can the scope and breadth of his collective oeuvre be revealed.

....Italy held a special place in the minds of cultivated nineteenth-century Americans, fulfilling their dream-quest for an ancient, idealized, and artistic past. But Venice spoke not only to Americans' fascination with Italy's history, for Rome's lineage was older and grander, but to their desire for an unadulterated past -- a past unchanged and essentially unchangeable. That Venice's appeal soared among American travelers at precisely the moment that Rome's plummeted tells us something about what Americans went to Italy for. This sudden and curious swing in affection can be traced to the incautious program of modernization and construction that began in Rome soon after 1870 when the capitol of the newly united Italy was moved there.

....Many believed that the face of Rome was marred by "improvements" made in the name of progress, and the number of tourists fell accordingly. Venice, a commercial and political backwater by the late-nineteenth century, was able to sleep through the alarm of modernization that rattled Rome and the rest of Europe and remain a kind of untouched, pre-industrial fantasyland.[2]

....Haseltine was a member of the first wave of American artists visiting Venice, among whose number were Sanford Robinson Gifford, Charles Caryl Coleman, Elihu Vedder, George Henry Yewell, John Rollin Tilton, William Graham, and George Inness. Most either lived or had spent a winter in Rome's active colony of American artists, and Venice was a standard summertime resort for them.[3] When Haseltine made his first recorded trip in 1871, Venice had not yet become the mecca for artists and tourists that it would later in the century when such American painters as Sargent, Duveneck, Whistler, and Prendergast arrived.[4] For this early group of American artists in the 1860s and early 70s, Venice promised escape from landlocked Rome's hot, dusty streets, the clatter of carriages and horses, the discomfort of travel on bumpy roads, and the danger of contracting fever. Artists were beckoned by the watery silence of this most "foreign" of foreign cities; as one writer said of Venice in the mid-sixties, "there is no city so unlike anything in' America," and this sense of being transported to a place not of this world fit into the burgeoning contemporary pursuit of the exotic. [5]

....If Rome may be said to have represented the ideal for American artists in Italy, Venice embodied the sensual. Far from disapproving papal eyes, and farther still from their puritan roots in America, painters and travelers alike embraced the seductive luxury and leisure of Venice. Even the most industrious of Americans succumbed to the indolent pastimes of the city that by this date seemed to exist solely to serve the civilized pleasures of its visitors. If the soft breezes and ever-present sound of lapping water couldn't make the idle forget their guilt, then a lazy gondola ride through the labyrinthine Venetian canals was surely enough to "rock ambition to sleep."[6] One American concluded: "'Il dolce far niente' is a sensation which can scarcely be realized more completely than in Venice."[7]


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