“The highest aim of the Venetian artist,” wrote the American art critic James Jackson Jarves ecstatically in 1882, “was to overlook prosaic utility entirely in his glass; to invent something so bizarre, ethereal, light, imaginative, or so splendid, fascinating, and original in combinations of color and design, as to captivate both the sense and understanding, and lead them rejoicing into far-away regions of the possibilities of an ideal existence.”
Jarves’s fervent enthusiasm for the colorful, fanciful splendors of Venetian glass wasn’t unique. Between the 1860s and the 1910s, glass produced on the Venetian island of Murano was one of the most coveted luxury items in the world, making Venice one of the most sought-after stops on the Grand Tour. Venetian glass was exceptionally popular in the United States, where it made an important imprint on American culture.
During this period, American elites filled their homes and local institutions with the stuff. Jarves himself amassed some 300 pieces of Venetian glass, which he later donated to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meanwhile, American artists working abroad filled their paintings, watercolors, and prints with not only the glass objects, but also the glass blowers, bead stringers, and the glowing furnaces of Venice’s inventive, prolific glassmaking industry.
Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano, edited by Crawford Alexander Mann III (Princeton University Press), explores the resurgence of Venetian glass and the ways that it influenced American ideas about taste, labor, and beauty during this pivotal period. The lavishly illustrated, fascinating book accompanies a traveling exhibition that is currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
Venice had been a renowned center for glass production since the Middle Ages. But the city’s loss of economic power and political independence in the 18th and early 19th centuries, along with high trade tariffs on its glass goods, brought the city’s 500-year history of glass making to a halt. By the 1850s, much of the city was also in disrepair. A young lawyer named Antonio Salviati noticed that the 11th-century mosaic decoration of St. Mark’s Basilica was crumbling, so he opened a mosaic and glassmaking manufacturing business. In the process, he launched a Venetian glass revival.
Salviati enlisted the help of the descendants of the old glassmaking families, who helped to recover lost techniques from the Renaissance and ancient Rome. Eager to expand his business, Salviati set up a showroom in London, sent his work to major fairs around the world, and sold his glass through exclusive American retailers like Tiffany & Co. Along the way, his workers crafted new, innovative techniques and styles that seduced countless American collectors, tourists, and artists.
Whistler arrived in Venice in September 1879. “I can’t tell you how intoxicating this place is,” he wrote to a friend. “You are perfectly bewildered with the entanglement of beautiful things!” One of the things he referred to was likely Venetian glass: in his 1880 etching “Nocturne: Furnace,” Whistler depicts a glassblower working into the night as seen from the artist’s perch on a passing gondola.
Sargent’s paintings capture young women at work around town and in factories, presenting a believable view of the labor behind the city’s glass, lace, and other craft industries. Some American artists like Ellen Day Hale spent their time in the Floating City depicting the electrification of glass street lights and lamps, while others like Louise Howland King Cox painted glass pieces as delicate adornments of daily domestic life.
Over time, Venetian glass influenced American glass makers and consumers. Venice solidified its art credentials by establishing its biennale in 1895, where the glassworkers of Murano often staged concurrent exhibitions of their work. As the fame of Venetian glass spread, its perceived value shifted increasingly towards fine art. As Oscar Wilde once said, “In its primary aspect a painting has no more spiritual message than an exquisite fragment of Venetian glass.”
Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano is edited by Crawford Alexander Mann III and published by Princeton University Press. An exhibition of the same name is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through May 8, 2022. The exhibition will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, June 25–September 11, 2022, and the Ca’ Pesaro Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna in Venice, October 15, 2022–January 8, 2023.