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

by Andrea Henderson Fahnestock



....Haseltine's Italian oeuvre embraced four primary sites: Capri, Sicily, Castel Fusano outside Rome, and, most prolifically, Venice. He returned more often to Venice than anywhere else in Italy -- at least seven times -- and seems to have produced more work of the site than any other in Europe.[8] Haseltine did not portray Venice according to accepted conventions; his paintings and watercolors are not guide-book illustrations of the city's most famous vistas, canonized by such eighteenth-century veduta painters as Canaletto and Guardi. And unlike most Americans painters in Venice who concentrated on the "stones of Venice" -- its splendid Gothic palaces and canal-side Renaissance and Baroque churches [9] -- he took little interest in the city's celebrated architecture. For Haseltine, Venice's appeal had less to do with its mythic or historical aura than with a feature that late-twentieth-century travelers will never experience: the brilliant colors and patterns of the elaborately painted sails of the fishing boats and their rippled reflections in the waters of the lagoons (FIGS 1, 2, 4, 8) .

....Given that virtually every contemporary visitor recorded his or her impression of this uniquely Venetian sight, it is surprising that more artists didn't choose to concentrate on these small local fishing boats from the nearby island of Chioggia. As one writer remarked in 1878, "the most beautiful things of all are to be seen on the sea, or rather the canals and lagoons.... Great painted saffron and crimson sails come out from the distance, looking in the sunlight like the wings of some gigantic tropical bird.... "[10] Ten years later, another observer wrote that, "the patterns on the Venetian sails are one of the most charming and peculiar features of the place...."[11] And in 1890 Elizabeth Robins Pennell confirmed that, still, these "fishing boats are the most familiar features of the lagoon near Venice."[12]

....Sanford Robinson Gifford, one of the few American painters whose interest in the sailboats is confirmed by visual evidence in his paintings, recorded sentiments no doubt similar to Haseltine's:

The richly-colored sails of the Venetian and Chioggian fishing boats have interested me a good deal from the striking contrasts of color they afford with the sky and water. There is also a curious variety of quaint design in them.[13]

Haseltine's interest in the sails and in Venice went deeper than their colorful picturesqueness to something alluded to by Gifford, something at the heart of Haseltine's sense of picture-making: the expressive power of contrast.

....The use of counterpoint as a device to heighten the impact of a painting had long been exploited by Haseltine. In his earliest New England works, he juxtaposed sharply focused passages of rocky coast with more freely rendered areas of water and sky, further underscoring their difference with abrupt transitions of light and shadow and the insistent pairing of the complementary colors blue and orange. The interplay of these opposing elements contributes to the arresting, almost surreal, quality in much of Haseltine's work. The artist's preference for stylistic duality -- crisp and loose sections combined in a single work -- was well suited to the extraordinary juncture of opposites in Venice, where substance and reflection, earth and water, East and West are joined in a rich and paradoxical whole. [14]

....While other painters focused on the elegant gondola -- vessel of leisure and tourism -- Haseltine preferred to depict the Chioggian bragozzo, a working boat. Similarly, he chose not to chronicle the idle pursuits of the fashionable who flocked to Venice in the last quarter of the century, but to people his canvases, as he had in his American coastal paintings, only with those whose presence was part of the fabric of the site -- here, the boat workers and fishermen.[15 ] The crowds Henry James complained of are not allowed to intrude upon the scene: "The Venice of to-day is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers."[16] Just as Haseltine omits this "herd of fellow gazers," he excises modern encroachments like steamships or vaporetti; all the craft depicted are either wind-or manpowered. Nothing disturbs the illusion created in these works of quaint simplicity, permitting viewers to be transported in their imaginations not only to Venice, but to an idealized, untouristed Venice.

....For Haseltine, whose patrons were American, British, and European, the demand for images of Venice was immediate and considerable.[17] Because the works served as pictorial souvenirs or evocations of place for well-traveled collectors, their capacity to return the viewer mentally and emotionally to the site was highly prized. But unlike their predecessors, the Italian vedute, they were souvenirs of mood and atmosphere, more than just of topography and architecture.

....Haseltine's travel to Venice coincided with European and American artists' new interest in sensations of color, light, and atmosphere. As the landscape conventions of Claude and Poussin, whose Roman associations had attracted artists, were replaced by impressionist preoccupations, Venice naturally supplanted Rome as the mecca of artists in Italy. Venice's sparkling environment provided fertile ground for these new impressionist concerns, evidenced by the visits of Manet in 1875, Renoir in 1881, and Monet after the turn of the century. Haseltine was not immune to these developments; his eye was drawn increasingly to the more ephemeral effects of light, particularly of light on water, and his Venetian works display a freer aesthetic, in both their richer surface treatment and broader chromaticism.


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