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

by Andrea Henderson Fahnestock



....Haseltine's first recorded trip to Venice in 1871 was announced with anticipation in the Boston and Philadelphia papers by Roman correspondent Anne Brewster.[18] During the more than month-long sojourn, Haseltine generated many studies, praised by Brewster upon his return:

Haseltine has brought from Venice some of the loveliest studies of the Venetian 'butterfly boats,' as Ruskin calls them, I ever saw. We all know how Haseltine paints water; what a poetry he throws into shores and sea, such a liquid sheen, such comprehension of nature's language of colors, and such a nice executive sense as he has.... Now he will add to his fame by some of the loveliest Venetian lagoon and Adriatic scenes ever artist painted. [19]

The success of the excursion no doubt encouraged Haseltine's return in July of the following year. [20]

....The fruits of these first two Venetian trips were not seen in America until 1874, during Haseltine's year-long return to New York when he exhibited the first of many Venetian subjects.[21] Critics responded favorably. One studio visitor commented upon the number of "pictures of the harbor of Venice with groups of picturesque fishing boats. One of the largest of the Venetian pictures gives a tenderly-toned early evening view, and is very poetical."[22] Of a work at the 1874 Lotos Club exhibition, a critic singled out "a gorgeous sunset finely illustrated with Venetian Sails,"[23] and in a review of his gallery show at Williams & Everett in Boston, another writer praised "his scenes in Venice, where the atmosphere seems heavy with moisture from the canals and lagoons, which condenses into leaden clouds above." This writer concluded that the "picturesque fishing boats, with their tall, lateen sails, gorgeous in color, and bearing huge religious emblems, have never been better depicted."[24]

....The earliest dated Venetian painting to have come to light, Venice (FIG 1) of 1875, is also the largest and among the most impressive of the site. Known previously only through the comments of a contemporary correspondent, Venice was discovered in a Connecticut private collection in the final stages of research for the current exhibition and emanates from Haseltine's Venetian sojourn of the late summer of 1874. [25] The artist has chosen to depict the transient moment between day and night to enhance the evanescent light and atmosphere of Venice. A pale moon hovers over the sails of the Chioggian fishing boats clustered at the left of the canvas while the last rays of the strong summer sun blaze on the horizon, drawing the viewer into the distance and casting into silhouette both the boats and the remote outlines of Venice's three most famous architectural shapes: Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore and its neighboring campanile, and the bell tower and multidomed basilica of San Marco, discernible from left to right floating on the lagoon.

....The arrangement of this trio of landmarks, with San Giorgio flanked by the Salute and San Marco, suggests a vantage point from the Lido, the long, sandy island that separates and protects Venice from the Adriatic, or from a boat just offshore. Unlike many American painters who merely simulated the low perspective of the gondola, [26] we know from Haseltine's account records that he did indeed work from hired gondolas. [27] Here, however, he included a marshy patch of land for the viewer in the left foreground.

....Anne Brewster, whose insightful chronicling of the Roman art world for American newspapers is our most valuable source of information about American painters abroad in the later years of the nineteenth century, described her encounter with this painting the year after it was painted:

One of Haseltine's beautiful Venice pictures had a delicious light upon it this afternoon. It is a sunset with a young crescent moon in the rich Venice sky. There is San Georgio [sic] and the Saluta [sic] and St. Marco; all the familiar campanile and cupolas and Ruskin's butterfly boats with their bright sails pointed up spearlike, very gorgeous in coloring, and the lagoon water truly Venetian in character, glittering smooth and yet broken up into multitudinous ripples and gentle wavelets. [28]

....Haseltine approached his Venetian paintings with the same stylistic duality that marks most of his work. Points of sharp focus are surrounded by more vaguely defined areas; here, the thin paint and hyperclarity of the boats are counterbalanced by more broadly rendered areas of sky and water with tangible, choppy brushwork on the water and impasto emphasizing the fanned rays of the sunset.

....The craft closest to the viewer in the painting is based on a meticulous study of a solitary boat in watercolor and gouache over graphite, Fishing Boat with Three Fishermen (FIG 12). He produced a number of these large, highly detailed examinations of the bragozzi, the exact purpose of which was unclear until the discovery of Venice revealed that they were made as preparatory studies for elements of future compositions.[29] While Haseltine indisputably used the watercolor as the basis for the foreground boat, he tinkered with its particulars, changing the pattern of the sail and adjusting other small details.

... In addition to referring to large-format watercolors, in other studio compositions Haseltine relied upon on-site studies made in sketchbooks. Often he would dedicate the entire page to experimentation with a single problem, such. as different gondola angles and the motion used by the gondoliers to propel their craft. In others, the page is used to layout the topography of a composition, and is sometimes finished in wash and gouache. [30]

....Another painting in which the iconic structures of Venice are overshadowed by the flamboyant sail canvas of the fishing boats is Grand Canal, Venice (FIG 4). The boats' kaleidoscopic patterns and colors outshine the pale, distant forms of San Marco's belltower at right and Santa Maria delIa Salute and the Dogana to the left of center.[31] Haseltine's interest was clearly in compiling a visual compendium of the the boats' fittings and the fishermen's equipment; catalogued are the masts, lines, oars, sails, and hulls of the boats, and the scatter-nets, dipnets, bulbous creel baskets called Pieri, and other fishing paraphernalia of their crews.

....To eyes accustomed to plain white sails, Haseltine's Venetian boats may look implausibly ornate. Roman correspondent Anne Brewster addressed this point in one of her letters to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin:

You who have never been to Venice have seen these butterfly boats in Tilton's, Haseltine's, Coleman's and Graham's charming Venetian pictures and probably you have thought them too highly coloured, but I assure you -- and every one will bear me out who has seen them on sunny mornings in the Chioggia channel and hovering around the public gardens -- that it is impossible to exaggerate their colours and brilliant effects."[32]

... Another writer described the way the sails were painted:

The colouring matter is a kind of earth, like the reddle we use for marking sheep, which is sold in the shops of Venice. The earth is mixed with water and dissolved, and for a paintbrush one uses a sponge. The colours to be obtained in these earths are limited in number; they are red, orange, blue, and pale green. The two latter are rarely used, and the majority of sails are painted in orange and red. The designs are of infinite variety.. . from perfectly plain sails, painted all in one colour, through stripes and geometrical patterns, up to the most elaborate representations of saints and madonnas.... When the sail has been painted, the colour is fixed by dipping the whole three or four times in the sea and leaving it to dry in the sun.[33]

....Haseltine again strikes his favorite complementary color chord, contrasting orangered sails against blue sea and sky, in Venice I (FIG 2), a painting based with few alterations on the finished watercolor Venice Boats (FIG 10). The unremarkable effects of water and sky serve as a foil to accentuate the brilliance of the sails and the zig-zagged stroking of their reflection. The artist creates a rhythm of color throughout the painting by repeating the ruddy hue at the tip of the foreground sail on the third sail, the terracotta roofs at the right, the brick dock wall, and the distant sail between Santa Maria delia Salute and the campanile of San Marco. The vertical of the campanile is echoed in the luff edges of the foreground sails and tempers the diagonal thrust of the masts.

....The fishing boats are docked in front of the boatyard.[34] just below the Giardini Pubblici at the easternmost end of the Canale di San Marco. The gardens, created in 1807 by Napoleon,[35] attracted painters intent on capturing on canvas the unloading of the night's catch. Haseltine painted the scene just as a contemporary visitor described it:

[I]n the auroral dearness of an early summer morning, grouped near the point of the gardens, ...the fishing-boats come to anchor and discharge the produce of their long night's toil, all their canvas hanging loose and motionless in the unwindy shelter of the garden trees....[36]

....Venice's cityscape floats on the taut horizon, its emblematic structures small and indistinct as if rendered in miniature, but Haseltine does not dwell on the glorious, irrecoverable past that built these pale marble palaces. Indeed, the distant architectural strip seems like a bit of theatrical scenery lowered into place behind the boats as if to say to the viewer, read: Venice. Like most of Haseltine's work, the scene is emphatically about present-day Venice, vibrant and active in the industry of the fishermen; the low vantage point and the concentration on the nautical and architectural vernacular in the foreground keep our attention focused on life on the lagoons rather than on the splendor of Venice's history.

....Also among the experiences foreign writers invariably extolled was the sight of Venice at sunset:

[T]he burning sunset turns all the sky to opal, all the churches to pearl, all the sea to gold and crimson; every colour gains an intensity and purity like to nothing ever seen in northern climates. [37]

....Although Haseltine's daughter wrote that sunrise, "earth at day-break,"[38] was his favorite time of day, to that we must also add sunset, as is evidenced in Santa Maria della Salute, Sunset (FIG 3) and in Venice (FIG I). Haseltine displays a dear preference for the ephemeral edges of day and night, and in this portrait of Baldassare Longhena's imposing circular church,[39] he again chooses the moment just after the sun has slipped out of view. The painting could serve as an illustration of Elizabeth Pennell's description of the sight: "...when the sun sinks behind the Salute, the lagoon, which it has set afire, seems to break out in flames in the brilliant sails of the homeward-bound boats."[40]


Go to:

This is page 4

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.