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

by Andrea Henderson Fahnestock



....Haseltine referred to a watercolor sketch from the 1870s, The Lagoon Behind Santa Maria delta Salute (FIG 11), in composing Santa Maria delta Salute, Sunset back in his Roman studio. Some elements from the watercolor are copied verbatim -- the small boat to the right of center, for instance, a type of work boat called a batela a coa di gambero,[41] propelled by the standing figure. Others are eliminated altogether, like the central campanile and domes of San Marco, and others still, like the angle from which the Salute is seen, are altered. Both works approach the massive Baroque church from the rear, but in the painting the view has shifted from west of the church to east. More significantly, Haseltine has pulled the focus of the painting away from the architecture of the scene, where it is in the sketch, and placed it instead on the dramatic atmospherics. The sky's tones, ranging from blue to vivid salmon to smoky grey, are reflected below in the rippled water, and, together with the impression of bustling activity created by the staccato rhythms of the sails, they transform the scene into a pageant of color, light, and movement. Although Haseltine has blurred the architectural detail of the Salute's domes and twin bell towers, he has heightened the sense of the church's sanctity through the dramatic silhouette created by the setting sun. The spare elegance of the watercolor, with its large areas of blue reserve paper, tight architectural linearity, and delicate gouaches, is replaced by the artist's new interest in broader chromaticism and looser handling. The transitions between these two works show that Haseltine looked upon his on-site sketches not as inflexible documents to be duplicated in the studio, but as one element of many affecting the final, composite composition.

....In another pair of views in watercolor and oil both dating from the 1870s, View of San Giorgio Maggiore and Santa Maria delta Salute, Venice (FIG 13) and Venice (FIG; 5), Haseltine again depicts one of Venice's most distinctive structures from the rear, this time Palladio's sixteenth-century island church. By turning away from the church's celebrated Renaissance façade,[42] Haseltine makes the viewer strain to recognize the church, and, in so doing, see it in a new, less iconic way. One of the constants in Haseltine's Venetian work is this rejection of the familiar, the expected. He abandons the familiar prospects across the Grand Canal made famous by generations of view painters and tries instead, through unusual vantage points, to make the viewer's experience a fresh one.

....On occasion though, what appears to modern eyes to be a fresh, happened-upon view of vernacular Venice, as Haseltine would have us believe of Squero di San Trovaso, 1887 (FIG 15), turns out to have been as familiar to nineteenth -century viewers as the city's major monuments.[43] The squeri, boatyards for the building, repairing, and storing of gondolas, were among the favorite haunts of artists. The rustic canal-side shed depicted here, rendered even more picturesque by the drying laundry, was in fact one of the most frequently recorded sites in Venice. Three years after Haseltine painted this watercolor, an engraving of the scene appeared as an illustration for an article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (FIG 14). The accompanying article described a common scenario in which unsuspecting painters in search of scenic corners of Venice were led by gondoliers to the site of this squero, "such a well-known, well-worn motif that it has been catalogued in the Venetian art directory."[44]

....Since Haseltine's main interest was not in winding back-alley canals but in Venice's light, atmosphere, and boats, Squero di San Trovaso is something of an anomaly. A more typical site among his watercolor subjects is Shipping Along the Molo in Venice (FIG 9). Haseltine's daughter describes sunrise "water-rambles" in search of subject matter and records that once, on finding all the fishing-boats with red and yellow sails set and ready to start, he whipped out his painting materials and succeeded in getting his sketch finished as they were moving out to sea, twenty minutes later. [45]

....This sense of rapid execution is palpable in Shipping Along the Molo in Venice. Made from the water alongside the Riva degli Schiavoni, the work looks back toward the Molo, the quay directly in front of the Doges' Palace. Haseltine's freer technique in such watercolor and gouache sketches allowed considerable license with color, bombastic handling of atmospherics and water, and summary treatment of architecture, as here, in the unarticulated facades of both the Doges' Palace (perhaps Venice's most symbolic building as the seat of the Venetian government before its collapse) and the Libreria across the Piazzetta.

....Haseltine devoted much of his time in Venice to exploring the outer lagoons. His daughter reports that some afternoons he would leave behind the bustle of the Grand Canal and head for the small outlying islands in the Venetian archipelago:

[F] rom the sea floated the scent of fresh sea-weed; hardly a sound broke the stillness, save the distant voices from the outgoing fishing boats; at these moments W.S.H. touched supreme contentment; his sketch-book on his knee, his colourbox beside him, he worked without speaking. . . [46]

....Despite its title, Sunset on the Grand Canal, Venice (FIG 7) actually depicts Venice's outer islands, perhaps Burano or Mazzorbo at the left. The very fact that it is difficult to identify the site precisely signals us that Haseltine instead intended the focus to be the wide expanse of water and sky, as is similarly the case in the watercolor Venetian Lagoon (FIG 6).[47] Sunset on the Grand Canal, Venice approaches the subject from some distance across the open lagoon, and by perching the tiny buildings on a taut, thin horizon, the artist emphasizes the fragility of the balance between sea and land. Venice's central paradox -- that her special relationship with the sea, to which she owes her unusual beauty and centuries of commercial prosperity, is the main threat to her survival -- is nowhere more evident than in these images of the outer lagoons.

....In some of the outer lagoon works Haseltine eliminated all trace of Venice. Like a knowing nod from the artist, Venetian Fishing Boats (FIG 8),[48] for example, is dependent upon the viewer's familiarity with the characteristic boats. Watercolor, better able to convey the sense of movement and shifting light and atmosphere, was well suited to Venice, and it was here that Haseltine first became interested in the medium.[49] He proved himself both an able draughtsman and a lucid watercolorist, crisply outlining the forms of the boats and suggesting sea and sky with freer stroking.

....Venice absorbed Haseltine until his death. In his obituary, Diego Angeli listed among the works left in his studio a watercolor of "Chioggia boats lighted up by the morning sun" and "a canal in Venice between two rows of brick houses, peopled with red and yellow sailboats and glowing like an opal in the light of sunset."[50]

....Haseltine's work in Venice dovetailed with his lifelong interest in the meeting of land and sea, but it also occupies a special place in his oeuvre because of the striking juxtapositions of color, form, and handling the subject allowed. Haseltine's hybrid stylistic approach and effective use of counterpoint make his Venetian paintings and watercolors vibrate with the coupling of opposites, elevating them above the merely picturesque.


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