A Street in Venice

This narrow alleyway, with its peeling plaster walls and a burst of light at the far end, draws us into an ambiguous situation. A woman steps over the threshold of a wine cellar, looking out at us as if we have intruded on a private meeting. The man facing her seems unaware of being observed. This is one of nearly twenty paintings in which Sargent, instead of focusing on iconic views of Venice, offers a glimpse into everyday life.

Venice was a popular destination for artists of all nationalities in the late nineteenth century because of its picturesque canals and grand architecture, the colorful crowds, and the special quality of its light—limpid and sparkling. John Singer Sargent made two trips to the once-powerful city at the head of the Adriatic Sea, in 1880 and 1882. Rejecting the traditional views, he chose his subjects from the lower classes seen in the alleyways that crisscross the city and depicted them in mundane tasks or, as in this case, in ambiguous relationships.

The setting for this painting was probably somewhere behind the Church of Santi Apostoli not far from the famous Ca’ d’Oro. Sargent manipulated the scene to emphasize its ambiguity and tension. The murky shadows, the high walls that seem to be closing in, the dramatic perspective lines leading to the narrow slit of sunlight in the distance, all contribute to the mystery and menace of the scene. The palette is nearly monochromatic, barely heightened by the splash of coral color on the woman’s dress. Above all, this encounter outside a wine shop has an almost uncomfortable air of immediacy in the agitated stance of the man and the direct gaze of the woman.

In this painting, Sargent owes a debt to both old and new sources of inspiration. Like many of his contemporaries . . . he admired the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez. Sargent incorporated into his work lessons learned from the earlier painter, particularly the organization of complex spaces and the use of rich, dark colors. But it was on photography—the souvenir photographs available throughout Venice by the 1880s—that Sargent based much of the composition of A Street in Venice. The painting seems almost like a snapshot in the frozen action, the distorted perspective, and the slight blurring of focus in the distance.

—Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 118.

John Singer Sargent

American, 1856–1925

A Street in Venice

c. 1880–82

Oil on canvas

29 9/16 x 20 5/8 in. (75.1 x 52.4 cm) Frame: 36 5/16 x 15 7/16 x 2 3/8 in. (92.2 x 39.2 x 6 cm)

Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1926




Conrads, Margaret C. American Paintings and Sculpture at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990.