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The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent.

Hugh Honour and John Fleming. Walker Books.

This is the book for anyone who recalls the first incredulous sight of the loveliness of Venice. It considers three gifted Americans and a coterie of their expatriates who flourished there at the turn of the century.

Henry James, the writer, was twenty-six in 1869 when first he was rowed down the Grand Canal. Only three years earlier Venice had been surrendered by the Austrians and incorporated into what would become a united Italy. Among his many euphoric impressions he recalled being rowed across the lagoon |in a golden silence which suffered us to hear the far-off ripple in the wake of the other gondolas, a golden clearness so perfect that the rosy flush on the marble palace seemed as light and pure as the life-blood on the forehead of a sleeping child'.

After his head cleared he enjoyed more mundane pleasures. |After dinner we went down to the piazza and established ourselves at one of Florian's tables. Night had become perfect: the music was magnificent. At a neighbouring table was a group of young Venetian gentlemen, splendid in dress, and glorious with the wondrous physical glory of the Italian race. "They need only velvet and satin and plumes", I said, "to be subjects for Titian and Paul Veronese".'

Henry James is the dominant presence in this volume. He came year after year warmly welcomed by the rich Mr. and Mrs. Curtis who owned the magnificent Palazzo Barbaro, or |the kind and charming Mrs. Bronson whose Ca' Alvisi was directly opposite the beautiful Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Mrs. Bronson was the undisputed queen bee of American expatriate society in Venice. The Curtis's artist son Ralph wrote: |During many happy years, from lunch till long past bed-time her house was the open rendezvous for rich and poor -- the famous and the famished -- les rois en exil and the heirs presumptive to the thrones of fame'. Whistler was to be seen there, generally holding the floor, and also the great and genial Robert Browning.

Whistler had arrived in Venice immediately after his notorious libel action against Ruskin, the costs of which had bankrupted him. He was to make a series of etchings for the Fine Art Society. These etchings, many of which he achieved en plein air, are exquisitely refined; bridges and canals, draped balconies, glimpsed gardens; he explores the Venice of beautiful facades. On New Year's Day 1880 he lamented his absence from London. |I should be resting happily in the only city in the world fit to live in instead of struggling on in a sort of Opera Comique country ... when the season is over'. But soon he imported his mistress and enjoyed lording it over the groups of young American painters led by Frank Deveneck.

John Singer Sargent, twenty-two years younger than Whistler, first came to Venice in 1880. The son of determined expatriates, he was born in Florence in 1856. Unschooled but fluent in German, French and Italian, he had studied art in Paris under Carolus-Duran with his cousin, Ralph Curtis. In the many watercolour illustrations in this book, he captures the spirit of Venice in an intimate and remarkable manner. He paints the gondoliers at siesta, the girls stringing onions or beads, or just lounging in vast empty rooms or in doorways. He captures the grandeur of the Doges' Palace (1898). His wonderful painting of the Curtis family in the Salon of the Palazzo Barbaro, which Mrs. Curtis refused as making her look too old, happily now belongs to the Royal Academy.

One learns that the Palazzo Rezzonico where today one sees exhibitions of works by Arcimboldi and de Pisis once provided studio space for Sargent, Whistler and Boldini before being bought by Robert Browning's son Pen in 1887. Little vignettes pop up all over this book, sepia photographs no larger than cigarette cards, tiny sketches of Whistler, Mrs. Bronson, her daughter Edith and interiors of their homes. One feels that this book, by authors who have lived in Venice for the past thirty years and who smile fetchingly at us from the book jacket, has been a labour of love. It should be put by the bedside of a favoured weekend guest.
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Author:Julius, Muriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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