Born in Florence in 1856 to well-off expatriate New Englanders, John Singer Sargent grew up speaking four different languages and was schooled in the great centres of European civilisation, later going on to art school in Florence, Dresden, Berlin and Paris. Whilst studying in the studio of distinguished Third Republic portraitist Carolus-Duran in Paris, Sargent quickly found his own vibrant style and soon gained several commissions for portraits-in-oil from the French aristocracy. Handsome, intelligent, well-connected and with an already assured painterly technique, the young Sargent’s career naturally began to flourish.
Familiar with Venice from childhood, Sargent was a regular visitor to this faded watery paradise of ruins. He often extended his trips in order to stay with distant cousins, the wealthy Bostonian Curtis family who lived on the piano nobile of the 17th century Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. Painted on the eve of the new century, An Interior in Venice (1898) is a rare ‘conversation’ piece which depicts the Curtis’ in their grand drawing room. We find the middle-aged Daniel Curtis in profile, positioned as a man of the world, reading a starched folio and yet seemingly ready to leap into action at any given moment. The middle-aged Mrs Curtis (or the “Dogaressa” as Sargent always affectionately called her) sits passively, eyes dreaming reflectively toward us – but not at us; her hands joined and resting peacefully upon her needlework. Across the room, towards the background, we see Ralph Curtis and his new American bride, Lisa De Wolfe Colt. Ralph was an elegant contemporary of Sargent’s and both young men studied at the same time under Carolus-Duran in Paris. He, with his lacquered moustache, perches upon the edge of a gilt console table, one hand upon his slender right hip, his body a distorted contrapposto hinting at the dynamic potential placed here in repose. Lisa, dressed in feminine, virginal whites and creams has just poured herself a cup of tea and cuts a newly fashionable masculine silhouette with her puffed and padded shoulders.
An Interior in Venice possesses a vast amount of deliberately dark and indistinct space within the canvas. The architectural contours of the room itself are comprehensible only because of the timeless objects which adorn it. The past exists here, unavoidably; and for only a moment the present must submit to it. The two couples are separated here, not only generationally, but symbolically too by a significant swath of carpet whose muted tones neatly balance the Baroque exaggeration of the walls and ceiling. Apparently entirely unaware of each other, the four Curtis’ are each struck by the light of the Canal which bind one to the other. Stagey and theatrical it may be, but the painting is deeply Venetian in that the ‘narrative’ is woven together by the shimmering, generous light of the canals. What we see here is an idealised moment of family quietude marked not by the ticking of a clock but by the lapping of waves against the Palazzo walls.
Few artists are lucky enough to capture the essence of their milieu, but undoubtedly Sargent did. His work is a visual complement to the novels of his contemporary Henry James, who in fact wrote The Wings of the Dove (1902) whilst staying at the Palazzo Barbaro. Sargent’s portraits are stylish fantasies, powerful near-operatic meditations on morality and decadence and clearly evoke one of the last great moments of European confidence.