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Artists view splendorous Venice in Swiss show

Superlatives are never lacking in descriptions of Venice's stunning beauty, with its unmatched wealth of magnificent palaces lining a labyrinth of canals crossed by hundreds of bridges.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Superlatives are never lacking in descriptions of Venice's stunning beauty, with its unmatched wealth of magnificent palaces lining a labyrinth of canals crossed by hundreds of bridges.

For Petrarch, regarded as the greatest humanist of the Middle Ages, Venice was "another world" when he arrived there 700 years ago. As the principal East-West trade hub, it was then the most prosperous European city.

Lord Byron, the English poet, was enthusiastically devoted to the splendor of what became generally known as "La Serenissima" (the most serene). For James McNeill Whistler, the American artist, the city was "intoxicating," as he wrote a friend. And French impressionist painter Claude Monet was overwhelmed by the sight.

Countless painters and writers have been fascinated by Venice for centuries. And the works of some of the greatest names among them are displayed for the first time together at an ambitious show at the Beyeler Foundation museum.

The 130 paintings, etchings, watercolors and drawings range from the "vedute" by Venetian-born Canaletto, done in the early 18th century, to the paintings of Venice by Monet, first exhibited in 1911.

Visitors might be particularly enthralled by the works of English landscapist Joseph Mallord William Turner, Whistler and John Singer Sargent, an equally vivid presence on the Anglo-American cultural stage. The three take the largest space in the show, which runs through Jan. 25.

Lenders include museums and private collectors from Europe, the United States and Japan. Topping the list is London's Tate, which possesses the large body of Turner's work.

Turner seems inspired by Byron's poetic description of the city in his "Childe Harold" series and also by the craft with which Canaletto had painted the Venetian scenery in the early 18th century. By then, as curator Martin Schwander notes in the show's catalog, Venice was profiting from a first "wave of popularity as a destination for prosperous travelers" from England and Central Europe.

Turner's first stay in 1819 lasted less than a week, enough to fill a couple of sketchbooks, material often worked up several years later into finished pictures. On view are 21 outstanding watercolors and eight paintings. In one, dated 1833, he invokes the imagery of Canaletto by including his figure in the margin. His brilliant play with light and color shows him as a precursor of modern art. His challenging of the then-accepted conventional approach made critics call him a "madman."

Whistler's first Venice visit saved him from a financial disaster that could have ended an already brilliant career. He had won a libel suit against a leading English art critic but was awarded only a symbolic coin while immense legal costs drove him into bankruptcy in 1879. The rescue came from the London Fine Arts Society, which advanced him 150 pounds toward 12 etchings of Venice to be done in eight weeks.

Whistler took 14 months to return, but he had 100 pastel drawings and 50 etchings. He successfully reassured the London dealers worried for their money, writing them that he had learned to know a "'Venice in Venice' that the others never seem to have perceived."

The show features 34 impressive samples of Whistler's pacemaking work, with pictures of palaces, the lagoon and some scenes of daily Venetian life.

"Despite the frustrations of loss and poverty, Whistler created some of his finest works in Venice, forming the foundation of his later career," the catalog notes.

John Singer Sargent, who later won special fame for his hundreds of portraits of British and American celebrities, first visited Venice in 1880 when he was 24. A colorful canvas showing a bowler-hatted man writing or drawing in a gondola was done by him that year. So was the first of a number on Venetian indoor studies.

A Florence-born American expatriate, Sargent settled in London but kept visiting Venice almost every year, producing an oeuvre which the catalog rates as a "testament to Venice's transporting and enduring allure."

Monet, who had long chosen seclusion for working in his French retreat in the river Seine valley, reluctantly accepted an invitation to make a journey to Venice in fall 1908. Upon arrival he was stunned. "Too beautiful to be painted," was his initial reaction, according to his wife. But he then did 37 paintings during a two-month stay. Fifteen of them help shape the core of the exhibition.