New Exhibition Examines Cultural Exchange Between American Artists and Venetian Glassmakers During the Late 19th Century

“Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” Opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Oct. 8
September 20, 2021
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Painting of a woman holding a book

John Singer Sargent, A Venetian Woman, 1882, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum, The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial, 1972.37.

The exhibition “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 the artistic experimentation the city inspired for visiting artists. It is the first comprehensive examination of American tourism, artmaking and art collecting in Venice, revealing the glass furnaces and their new creative boom as a vibrant facet of the city’s allure.

“Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from Oct. 8 through May 8, 2022. The exhibition is organized by Crawford Alexander Mann III, curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Venice—a city of water, light and beauty—has long captivated American artists and collectors who have been inspired by the creative talents of Venetians in glassmaking to lacework,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “With this exhibition, ‘Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano,’ the Smithsonian American Art Museum continues its strong commitment to exploring American art with global connections. We are proud to foster conversations about influences on American art and life.”

Between 1860 and 1915, the renowned glassmaking industry on the Venetian island of Murano experienced intense growth. This Venetian glass revival coincided with a surge in Venice’s popularity as a destination for American tourists, many of whom visited the glass furnaces and eagerly collected ornate handblown goblets decorated with floral and animal motifs. As its fame and quality grew, Venetian glass became more than a travel souvenir; patrons saw these as museum-quality works of fine art. Collector interest led to frequent depictions of Italian glassmakers and glass objects by prominent American artists of that era, including John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. During the same time, Venice’s other decorative arts industries, most notably mosaics, lace and jewelry, saw a resurgence, in part through American patronage.

Despite its prestige, shifts in tastes have shrouded the allure of Venetian glassware. This exhibition displays individual works of glass with long histories in American hands—objects that crossed the Atlantic more than a century ago—in conversation with paintings, watercolors and prints by American artists who found inspiration in Venice.

“Thanks to years of research, we present an accurate reconstruction of the tastes of these travelers using masterpieces of glassware and fine art that they purchased more than a century ago,” Mann said. “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.”

The exhibition brings together more than 140 artworks, and features, in addition to rare etchings by Whistler and major oil paintings by Sargent, work by Robert Frederick Blum, William Merritt Chase, Charles Caryl Coleman, Louise Cox, Frank Duveneck, Ellen Day Hale, Thomas Moran, Maxfield Parrish, Maurice Prendergast and Julius LeBlanc Stewart. More than a quarter of the objects in the groundbreaking exhibition are from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, joining loans from more than 45 prestigious museums—such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago—and from private collections. Paintings and prints intermingle among rarely seen Venetian glass mosaic portraits and glass cups, vases and urns by the leading glassmakers of Murano, including members of the legendary Seguso and Barovier families. Several artworks were conserved specifically for inclusion in the exhibition, including a stunning Byzantine revival gold and glass mosaic necklace.

“Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” gives fresh attention to women artists who were often sidelined in the history of the period, such as Mabel Pugh. The exhibition includes two linoleum block prints by Pugh that were recently acquired by the museum. As both makers and collectors, women were at the forefront of reviving and sustaining Venice’s glass, bead and lace industries. American patrons like Isabella Stewart Gardner and Jane Stanford brought back to the United States art and luxury souvenirs from Italy, and their admiration for Venice and Murano glass is evident in the respective museums they founded.

“Venice’s famed glass industry has long contributed to its historical richness and to its reputation for cutting-edge contemporary art, together with the Venice Biennale art fair,” Mann said. “To this day Americans are dazzled by this face-off between past and present. It is a testament to the production and skillset of Venetian artisans and the bustling city’s self-made image that Americans are still seduced by this island metropolis, following in the footsteps of Sargent and Whistler to enjoy its beauty and creative energy.”

Book

The gorgeously illustrated catalog provides the first survey of the American grand tour to Venice combining fine and decorative arts. The book features five new essays from experts in the history of American art and Venetian glass including Sheldon Barr, independent scholar of Venetian revival glass; Melody Barnett Deusner, associate professor of art history at Indiana University Bloomington; Diana Jocelyn Greenwold, curator of American art at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine; Stephanie Mayer Heydt, the Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; and Mann. Brittany Emens Strupp, curatorial assistant and doctoral candidate in art history at Temple University contributed to the artist biographies. Co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, it is available for purchase ($65) in the museum store and online.

Tour

After closing in Washington, D.C., “Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

Credit

“Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C., Chris G. Harris, the Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment, Janet and William Ellery James, William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund, Maureen and Gene Kim, the Lunder Foundation—Peter and Paula Lunder Family, Lucy S. Rhame, Holly and Nick Ruffin, the Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Awards, Rick and Lucille Spagnuolo, and Myra and Harold Weiss.

The accompanying catalog is supported in part by Jane Joel Knox.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

In-kind support has been provided by Christie’s.

Related Exhibition

The exhibition “New Glass Now” is on view at the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch for contemporary craft, from Oct. 22 to March 6, 2022. It offers a global survey that highlights the innovation shown by a new generation of glassmakers. The exhibition, organized by The Corning Museum of Glass, features a range of objects, installations, videos and performances by 50 artists working in more than 23 countries. Their work challenges the very notion of what the material of glass is and what it can do. 

Planning a Visit to the Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is open with a reduced weekly schedule and health and safety measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors are advised to consult the museum’s website, AmericanArt.si.edu/visit, for up-to-date guidance about current policies, operating hours and requirements for face coverings.

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home to one of the most significant and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station, and is open 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Its Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. and is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website: americanart.si.edu.

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