We are grateful to Wendy Baron for her kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work.
Sickert is most often identified with London, whether it be his music-hall paintings of the 1880s or his Camden Town interiors of the early 1900s, but for almost a decade from 1895 to 1904, Venice was the city which was to form the dominant theme in his painting. It was here that Sickert, through his continued experimentation into innovative modes of expression, came to be known as one of the most important British artists at the turn of the century.
Sickert would have first come across Venice as a studio assistant to Whistler when he helped him with his series of Venetian etchings. Unlike Whistler who had concentrated on narrow walkways and backwaters, in his early visits to the city, Sickert’s focus was on the impressive architecture of Venice’s grand buildings particularly centered around St Mark’s Square which he found ‘engrossing’ (Sickert in a letter to Wilson Steer, 1895), as well as the Rialto and Santa Maria della Salute, at the opening of the Grand Canal. The exceptionally impressive architecture coupled with the distinctive effect of the soft, Italian light across the rippling waterways had long provided artists with source material and this was no different for Sickert. In 1896 he took a studio at 940 Calle dei Frati, and following the breakdown of his marriage, he threw himself into his work, fascinated by the juxtaposition of the grandiose facades with the quiet, calm warren of passages and waterways that lay behind, which particularly appealed to his eye for the shabby ordinariness of the everyday life.
The present work depicts the Santa Maria Formosa, which is located in the heart of Venice, just behind the Basilica of St Mark's, and was built in 1492 on the site of a former church that dated to the 7th century. Sickert emphasises the bold, ornate architecture, choosing a low vantage point, which highlights its monumentality. Typical of many of Sickert’s Venetian landscapes, the building is shown off centre, cropping in on the top of the basilica and the right-hand side of the structure. He focuses particularly on the dramatic effects of light, with the shadow of the building drawing a diagonal across the square.
Sickert’s Venetian landscapes were amongst his most sought-after works in the early part of the 20th Century, and were especially popular with his French audience, sold through dealers Bernheim Jeune in Paris. Of the 96 works included in his June 1904 showing at the gallery, 32 were Venetian subjects, with a buying public no doubt drawn to the fresh, Impressionistic handling of the paint of the waterways. The present work was exhibited firstly at Durand-Ruel, Paris in 1903, and possibly at Bernheim Jeune in 1907.
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