John Singer Sargent in Venice

Venice has long been a subject for painters and writers, its beauty and decay.  I spent a number of months there many years ago and I think the paintings of John Singer Sargent capture the city in a way that I remember the place.  The languid, dense paintings come close to depicting not just the look and feel, but the smell and sound of the canals and calles. JSS02

Although the paintings are devoid of the tourist throngs that choke the city, they do evoke the romantic decay of Venice that the morning sunlight reveals.  Early in the morning the city has none of its glittering storefronts or jams of people.  Unlike the golden light of central Italy or the sharp, metallic light of the Dolomites, the briny air in Venice softens the focus and reveals an astonishing variety of black-brown shadows that occasionally let the sunlight in.

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Maybe because most of the time I spent there was in winter and spring, but it is the dampness and smells of Venice that I remember best.  The smells of the city weren't the nasty putrid smells of the canals in summer, but rather that musty, slightly bitter smell of rust and moss, slimy bricks and molding stucco.