Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano 

Opening 2021

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
A photograph of a fish made out of glass.

Unidentified, Sculpture, glass, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Gellatly, 1929.8.469.2

Experience the spectacle of Venice and its rich history as a glassmaking capital through Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano. The exhibition is the first comprehensive examination of the American Grand Tour to Venice in the late nineteenth century, revealing the glass furnaces and their new creative boom as a vibrant facet of the city’s allure.

Though the Venetian island of Murano has been a leading center of glass-making since the middle ages, today’s thriving industry stems from a burst in production between 1860 and 1915. In this era, Murano glassmakers began specializing in delicate and complex hand-blown vessels, dazzling the world with brilliant colors and virtuoso sculptural flourishes. This glass revival coincided with a surge in Venice’s popularity as a destination for tourists, leading to frequent depictions of Italian glassmakers and glass objects by artists from abroad. American painters and their patrons visited the glass furnaces, and many collected ornate goblets and vases decorated with flowers, dragons, and sea creatures. Venetian glass vessels, and also glass mosaics, quickly became more than souvenirs—these were esteemed as museum-quality works of fine art.

Moreover, the inventions of Murano’s master glassmakers established Venice as a center for artistic experimentation. Sojourns in Venice were turning points for John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and scores of artists who followed in their footsteps, often referencing the glass industry in their works. Featuring more than 150 objects, this exhibition presents a choice selection of glass vessels in conversation with paintings, watercolors, and prints by the many talented American artists who found inspiration in Venice. 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.

In addition to works by Sargent and Whistler, the exhibition features paintings and prints by Frank Duveneck, Thomas Moran, William Merritt Chase, Maurice Prendergast, Maxfield Parrish, Louise Cox, and Ellen Day Hale. These are featured alongside rarely seen Venetian glass mosaic portraits and glass cups, vases, and urns by the leading glassmakers of Murano, including members of the legendary Seguso, Barovier, and Moretti families. Remarkable works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection join loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and dozens of other distinguished public and private collections.

For Sargent, Whistler, and many of their patrons, Venetian glassware was irresistibly beautiful, and collecting these exquisite vessels expressed respect for both history and innovation. By recreating their transatlantic journey—from the furnaces of Murano to American parlors and museums—this exhibition and catalogue will bring to life the creative energy that beckoned nineteenth-century tourists and artists to Venice. This spirit spawned the renowned Venice Biennale contemporary art festival, and it lives on in Venetian glassmakers’ continued commitment to excellence.

The exhibition is organized by Crawford Alexander Mann III, curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Following its presentation in Washington, DC, the exhibition will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas; and the Ca’ Pesaro Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna in Venice, Italy.

Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition will be accompanied by a gorgeously-illustrated catalogue, featuring five new essays from experts in the history of American art and of Venetian glass. By providing the first combined survey of fine and decorative arts from the Venetian Grand Tour, this book will be a unique and valuable contribution to the fields of American Art and nineteenth-century cultural history.

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 Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment, Janet and William Ellery James, William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund, The Lunder Foundation—Peter and Paula Lunder Family, Lucy S. Rhame, the Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Awards, and Myra and Harold Weiss.

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

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