Inspired by Murano, Watercolor Artists Went Wild

On display through May 8, 2022, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” brings to life the Venetian glass revival of the late 19th century and explores the way the artistic experimentation taking place in glassmaking there inspired visiting artists.

“Bead Stringer, Venice” (1880, watercolor and graphite on paper, 4 1/2 x 3 3/4 in., National Anthropoligical Archives, Smithsonian Institution) by William Henry Holmes

Sojourns in Venice were turning points for John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and scores of artists who followed in their footsteps, often referencing the glass industry in their works. Featuring more than 140 objects, this exhibition presents a choice selection of glass vessels in conversation with paintings, watercolors, and prints by the many talented American artists who found inspiration in Venice. This juxtaposition reveals the impact of Italian glass on American art, literature, design theory, and science education, as well as ideas at the time about gender, labor, and class relations.

Attributed to Compagnia di Venezia e Murano, manufacturer, “Vase with Dolphins and Flowers” (ca. 1880s-1890s, blown and applied hot-worked glass, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Gellatly)

For Sargent, Whistler, and many of their patrons, Venetian glassware was irresistibly beautiful, and collecting these exquisite vessels expressed respect for both history and innovation. By recreating their transatlantic journey — from the furnaces of Murano to American parlors and museums — this exhibition and catalogue will bring to life the creative energy that beckoned 19th-century tourists and artists to Venice. This spirit spawned the renowned Venice Biennale contemporary art festival, and it lives on in Venetian glassmakers’ continued commitment to excellence.

“On the Way to the Public Garden” (ca. 1895, opaque watercolor and pastel over graphite on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Laura Dreyfus Barney and Natalie Clifford Barney in memory of their mother, Alice Pike Barney) by Francis Hopkinson Smith

Francis Hopkinson “Hop” Smith spent almost every summer painting in Venice between the 1880s and the end of his life, quickly finding friends among its growing community of American artists and art collectors. Specializing in watercolors, he typically created large and detailed images of canals and modest buildings, celebrating Venice’s everyday beauty. Unlike the gestural, expressive styles of Sargent and Whistler, Smith chose a more controlled approach that conveys tranquility. He also published accounts of his journeys, writing in an accessible voice and illustrating these with reproductions of his watercolors. This scene of a bridge near the Public Garden, on the city’s western tip, appeared in his 1895 collection Venice of To-Day. That same year Venice launched the first of its Biennale art fairs, which continue to this day in special pavilions in these gardens, just paces from this bridge.

Mark Your Calendar

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW) through May 8, 2022

National Tour
Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (June 25, 2022 – September 11, 2022)

Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut (October 15, 2022 – February 27, 2023)

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Kelly Kane
PleinAir Magazine and American Watercolor Weekly Editor-in-Chief With more than 20 years experience in art publishing, Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education and art history. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of PleinAir Magazine and the American Watercolor Weekly newsletter. Click here to send her an email.


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