In the summer of 1894 Melville made his first visit to Venice, producing largely impressionistic watercolours that record his experiences of the city and its architecture. Melville painted the Rialto, the subject of the present painting, on more than one occasion. In 1896 he exhibited a similar view of the bridge, seen from the other side and entitled The Rialto, at the Glasgow Institute and which was formerly in the collection of his patron and friend Graham Robertson. Garnet Sails is the more engaging work. Rather than a landscape view of the bridge seen from the water, the current painting adopts a more complex viewpoint, depicting the bridge from a higher and tighter angle, intersected by the vertical masts, which demands a more astute rendering of perspective. Melville's handling of the medium is equally confident. Form is rendered with bold and purposeful brushstrokes which give greater emphasis to mass over unnecessary detail. Light and shadow are masterfully conveyed, noticeably in the left-hand sail and in the fluid handling of the reflections in the water. The composition possesses a skilled harmony and rhythm, in colour and form, which nevertheless exudes a convincing simplicity that defines Melville as a master of watercolour.
In an intriguing article that may well refer to the present work, Frank Rutter wrote in the Sunday Times in 1904, '...[Melville] is a consummate artist and most brilliant painter. His one exhibit at the R.S.A., a watercolour of Venice, ablaze with colour, is sufficient to teach one this.'
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