As we hunker down for a long, cold winter, I thought it would be comforting to gaze upon the vibrant colors and light of a distant (although not always warmer) location, focusing on views of Venice by Walter Launt Palmer (1854-1932).
After sharing a studio with Frederic E. Church (1826‒1900) in the famous Tenth Street Studio building, Palmer departed for Europe in 1881, intending to paint the many lavish interiors to be found there. He took this opportunity to visit Venice, where he remained for two months, sketching, painting, and photographing views of Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, which soon became one of his favorite subjects. It is in his Venice pictures that his artistic experimentation is most evident, with certain works bearing the sleek realism of the academic mode, and others exploiting the more painterly qualities of the Impressionist style.
Hawthorne Fine Art’s most recent acquisition by Palmer is Sailboats, View of Venice, which depicts a distant view of the magnificent Campanile and Basilica of San Marco, most likely seen from the island of Giudecca to the south of Venice. Like many of his Venetian scenes, Palmer includes both the impressive architecture of the Piazza San Marco, the iconic waterways of the city, and the sailboats so common in the Venetian landscape. In this scene, however, Palmer prominently features the brilliant golden-yellow sail and two boats, partially obscuring the view of the Venetian architectural skyline. In addition to focusing on this mode of transportation as the primary subject, Palmer also explores the unusual landscape of Venice, emphasizing the rocky coast through the creation of a prominent foreground that recedes deeply into the picture plane. The viewer’s eye is led to the central subject through a fractured reflection in the foreground, culminating in a splash of intense color in the boat’s sail. The sail, illuminated by golden light from the setting sun streaming from the left/west creates a stunning contrast against the cloudy blue water and the rosy Venetian skyline in the distance, proving Palmer’s ability to represent “the iridescent charm of the Queen of the Adriatic.” While still using the traditional warm underpainting technique common among nineteenth century American landscape painters, Palmer experiments with the effects of light in an Impressionist manner. Palmer exhibits his knowledge of Impressionist theory of shade and shadows though his use of green to depict the shadows of the three boats, and a blue-purple hue to create depth in the rocky foreground.
A second image, Venice Moonlight, focuses on the stunning skyline of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. This work features technical drafting of the architectural features of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, soft and seamless gradations of color in the twilight sky, and a thick application of pigment to depict the golden moon and its eerie reflection on the water’s surface. Masterfully done, this image glows with its own inner light, capturing the splendor and mystery that must have enchanted both Palmer and his patrons.
Although Sailboats, View of Venice is undated, Venice Moonlight is dated to 1903, almost twenty years after the artist’s first trip to Venice. Palmer continued to produce his popular Venetian scenes up until his second trip to Venice in 1904. This makes dating any of Palmer’s undated images of Venice very difficult, and it is near impossible to know when Sailboats, View of Venice was completed. Palmer’s devotion to this fascinating and beautiful subject, however, led one critic to remark: “His canals, churches, and boats exhibit a quality of atmosphere, a sensitive blending of that rare tone given by age and decay, with the noon day light or the evening mist. He has not given us the Venice of Turner, nor that of Ziem, and yet it fails not, it is worth living with and dreaming about.”
 “The Society of Landscape Painters,” Brush and Pencil 4, no. 2 (May 1899): 126
. Theodore Purdy, “Walter Palmer’s Landscapes,” Town and Country (September 28, 1901).