Tag Archives: Art

Venice, Through the Eyes and Words of…

Venice can readily be experienced from afar through the eyes and words of others; through incredible paintings, stunning photographs, entertaining films, classical and contemporary literature. This past spring, I experienced the vibrant, mysterious mood of Venice first hand.

Venice Aleksandra Ekster 1924

Venice Венеция,1924. Aleksandra Ekste (1882-1949)

It was a splurge trip, kept short to compensate. With just under 48 hours to spend in the city, my itinerary included strolling about the Piazza San Marco, taking in the Palazzo Ducale, Palazzo Fortuny, seeing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and a visit to the Luigi Bevilacqua textile house. Venice Grand Canal

Within minutes of stepping off the Vaporetto, in search of my hotel, map in hand, I became lost. I knew that I had to take a left turn, it’s just that I was looking for a narrow street not a crevice.

I stayed at the Hotel Al Reali, choosing the hotel based on its location and positive reviews.  It’s only a few minutes walk (not including extra time allotted to taking wrong turns) from both the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco.

The reviews reflected reality. My room, service and dinner at the hotel restaurant were top-notch. Architectural details of the 17th century palazzo are found throughout the small hotel. My room, was well-appointed, comfortable and spacious. Plus, it overlooked a canal. During a few minutes of downtime, I visited the cosy ground-floor library, perusing books about Venice’s history, architecture, art and artists. Venice Door and GondalierAfter checking in, I headed over to Piazza San Marco (along with a throng of other tourists making their way through the narrow, twisty lane ways). Over the centuries, many artists have painted scenes of the picturesque and historically significant square. The artworks enable us to step back into the Venice of yesterday. If you swap the Venetians seen in Gentile Bellini and Canaletto’s paintings below with modern-day global tourists, you could be looking at scenes from today.


Procession in St. Mark’s Square, 1496. Gentile Bellini (1429-1507)

Canaletto Piazza San Marco

St. Mark’s and the Clock Tower, Venice, c. 1735-1737. Canaletto (1697-1768)

Gentile Bellini  and Canaletto were both Venetian and both from families of prominent artists. Both were prolific artists of their times. Unfortunately, in 1577, a fire destroyed much of Bellini’s work. Canaletto’s actual name was Giovanni Antonio Canal. He became known as “little canal” to differentiate his artwork from that of his father. While Bellini was best known as a portraitist, many of Canaletto’s works depicted daily life in Venice. Wealthy British, many on their “Grand Tour,” snapped up Canaletto’s paintings almost as soon as the paint was dry.

Across the front of Basilica di San Marco are a series of domed alcoves. Each features brilliant gold and coloured mosaics. The one shown in the photo below, dating from 1660, is of the arrival of St. Mark’s remains in Venice.Venice Piazza San Marco Mosaics

Much of the ornamentation seen on the exterior of the Basilica di San Marco was acquired through invasions.

Gladiator Sculptures and Lion Bas-beliefVenice Basilica Roof LIne DomeThe bottom left photo is of the 4th century Roman porphyry sculpture called “Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs.”  The sculpture was likely looted from Constantinople in 1204 during the 4th Crusade. Tetrachs and Gate

Did you notice the white-coloured foot? A section of the original sculpture is missing. Archaeologists came across the missing foot in Istanbul during the 1960’s, giving substantiation to the looting theory. It’s now part of the Istanbul Archeology Museum’s collection.


The entryway, called Porta di Fiori, in the photo above is on the north-side of the Basilica. The Moorish architectural influences add a beautiful rhythm to the building. The nativity scene above the door is 13th century.

The four bronze horses shown in Sickert’s 1901 painting were sacked from Constantinople during the 4th Crusade. Some scholars believe they’re of 4th century Greek origin. Others, based on the high copper content of the statues, say they are Roman. Napoleon whisked them off to France in 1797 after invading Venice. They were later returned to Venice. However, what you see now on the basilica’s exterior are replicas. To protect the ancient bronzes from the elements, they are safely displayed inside. Venice Bronze Horses

A few dozen oohs and ahhs later, it was time to find a spot for dinner. Quite hungry, I opted for the convenience of the first available table that I came across. Surprisingly, given Venice’s reputation for high prices and poor service, my meal was affordable (at least relative to Swiss standards) and the service and food quality were reasonably good.

On day 2, I decided to visit the current art exhibition “Manet, Return to Venice” at the Palazzo Ducale instead of touring the palace buildings. Manet’s Grand Canal of Venice was one of the masterpieces on display.

Manet Grand Canal

The Grand Canal of Venice (Blue Venice), 1875. Edouard Manet (1832-1883)


Grand Canal in Venice, 1908. Claude Monet

Two other paintings of the grand canal (sadly not on display in Venice), Monet’s above and Turner’s, at the end of the post, are among my favourites. The soft blurring of colour and light in the paintings elegantly capture the grand beauty of the city.

After viewing the not-too-crowded Manet exhibit, I ate lunch on the terrace of a canal-side café. I enjoyed watching the gondolas glide by as I dined on house-made gnocchi served with fresh spring peas and a delicate white wine cream sauce. Watching the impressive manoeuvres required to lift a large refrigerator out of a boat across the canal had me wondering how if many deliveries land in the water and whether there is a retrieval service.

I spent the afternoon enjoying the contemporary artworks on display that The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The collection is located in the low palazzo seen in the photo of Grand Canal below. You can read about my visit and Peggy Guggenheim’s connection to Venice here and here. Venice Grand Canal and Orthodox Church

My evening meal the hotel’s Alle Corrone restaurant was excellent. The restaurant offers seasonal Venetian cuisine.

Dinner was briefly interrupted by the sounds loud clanging at the canal-side door as hotel staff worked quickly to slide a metal barrier in place to guard against the rapidly rising water level in the canal. By the time dinner was over, the square leading to the the hotel was under about four inches of water. This is the acqua alta, or high water effect. The night manager said the water would continue to rise for a least another hour, partially due to the full moon. Venice High Water and Door Panel

Day 3 arrived all too quickly. I spent the morning at the Rialto Market. The liveliness and colours of the market warmed the chilly, rainy day.

Across the canal from the market is Ca’ D’Oro.  The palace’s lace-like loggia panels are reminiscent of the Alhambra’s Moorish architecture.

Ca D'Oro

William Merritt Chase painted Ca’ D’Oro in 1913. His painting is titled “Venice.”

Ca’ D’Oro, or Palazzo Santa Sofia, onstructed between 1428 and 1430, is now an art museum. Built for the Contarini family, one of the founding families of the Venetian Republic, the Venetian Gothic façade was once covered in gold leaf, thus the origin of the d’oro reference.

The world’s “most beautiful city” had humble beginnings as a series of scattered fishing settlements. In the 6th century AD, the area was a haven for Italian refugees, gradually expanding to become a major trading centre for exotic spices, sumptuous silks, precious jewels and metals from the East and South.

By the early 1500’s Venice’s craft guilds were known for their high-quality silks, beautiful brocades and velvet, exquisite gold work, glass work, including eye glasses, and armour. Wealthy Venetian merchant families built grand palaces and sponsored talented artists.

With Columbus’ arrival in the new world and Portugal’s discovery of a new ship route to India via Africa’s Cape Horn, Venice’s trade monopoly with the East ended, sliding the city into an economic decline. By the late 17th century, tourism became an important source of revenue for the Venetians,  with wealthy young men travelling to Venice while on their Grand Tour of Europe.

Today, some argue that the current level of  tourism, at 60,000 visitors per day, is harmful to the city, creating high environmental and social costs.


Before leaving Venice, I did venture into a tiny Bevilacqua shop, a treasure chest of exquisite silk upholstery textiles. Touring the Palazzo Fortuny is still on my wish list. As I learned all too late, it’s only open during special exhibitions.


Venice. William Turner (1775-1851)

Visiting Venice wasn’t on my bucket list. I’m glad I went. Mysterious, vibrant, proud and beautifully captured in the following poem by Anna Akhmatova (1889 – 1966).


Gold dovecote by waters,
Tender and dazzlingly green;
A salt-breeze sweeps away
The gondola’s narrow wake.

Such sensitive, strange eyes in the streets,
The bright toys in the shops:
A lion with a book, on a lace pillow,
A lion with a book, on a marble pillar.

As in an ancient, faded canvas,
The sky is a cool, dull blue…
But one’s not crushed in the crowd,
Nor stifled in this damp heat.

To further experience Venice through the eyes and words of others…

  • Photography books: Venice: City of Art, Serenissima: Venice in Winter, Francesco’s Venice: The Dramatic History of the World’s Most Beautiful City
  • Films shot in Venice: The Italian Job (2003), Bread & Tulips, (2000), Death in Venice (1971)
  • Some literature set in Venice: The Merchant of Venice, Death in Venice, Vaporetto 13, plus a lot more – this blog has an extensive list and provides reviews written by the blog author, Jeff Cotton.

Maria-Christine Vargas: Atelier Galerie in Arles

One of my great pleasures when travelling is checking out the local art scene. When visiting Arles, my girlfriend and I stopped in at the trés petit atelier et galerie of artist Maria-Christine Vargas.

2013-09-03 14.43.31

The whimsical painting in the shown in the photo above was the first to catch my eye as we walked into the gallery. We spent quite a bit of time speaking with Ms. Vargas, admiring her work and watching her create a new piece.

“I work in a playful way, pasting paper and materials of different colours and textures; this approach facilitates the creation because it allows me to compose, scratch, to flatten and leave fingerprints or not.” -Marie-Christine Vargas

She studied art in Aix, Marseille, and Sète, France. Her background includes theater set design. In 2006, she opened the gallery and studio in Arles at 22 rue Porte de Laure, a few minutes walk from the Ampitheatre. From March through October, you’ll find her there, creating contemporary works on canvas, paper and art board. She also carries a limited selection of prints. For contact information and to see additional photos of her artwork, visit her website.

Just when I thought I had narrowed down my intended purchase, I changed my mind once more, and left with the painting that first attracted my attention. It’s full of life and movement, with a dash of cheekiness.

Did Van Gogh’s Yellows Contribute to his Blues?

“There is a sun, a light that for want of a better word I can only call yellow, pale sulphur yellow, pale golden citron. How lovely yellow is! And how much better I shall see the North!” –Vincent Van Gogh letter to his brother, Theo Van Gogh, Arles, August 13, 1888

Arles paintings Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh lived in Arles for just over a year, from February 1888 though May 1889. During this period, he created over 180 paintings, an astounding number and some considered to be his best works. Influenced in part by the light and colours of southern France, his paintings from this period are infused with with intense, saturated colours. Of greater interest to me is his use of colour to convey emotion, particularly his use of yellow.

After moving into the little yellow house intended to become the Studio of the South, Van Gogh set about decorating the house for the arrival of his guests,  notably for Gauguin, whom Van Gogh very much admired. Van Gogh describes his vision for one of the rooms to his brother Theo (letter dated September 9, 1888),

“The room you will have then, or Gauguin if he comes, will have white walls with a decoration of great yellow sunflowers. In the morning, when you open the window, you see the green of the gardens and the rising sun, and the road into the town. But you will see these great pictures of the sunflowers, 12 or 14 to the bunch, crammed into this tiny boudoir with its pretty bed and everything else dainty. It will not be commonplace.”

Sunflowers Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh completed four sunflower paintings prior to Gauguin’s arrival. The smallest, of three sunflowers, was 73 cm x 60 cm, the others were about 90 cm x 70 cm.  Having experienced the energy of Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Flowers in a spacious gallery setting, I can imagine the bold visual impact these paintings presented when hung in the small cramped rooms of the yellow house. As Gauguin wrote,

“In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out against a yellow background; the ends of their stalks bathe in a yellow pot on a yellow table. In one corner of the painting, the painter’s signature: Vincent. And the yellow sun, coming through the yellow curtains of my room, floods all this flowering with gold, and in the morning, when I wake up in my bed, I have the impression that it all smells very good.”

The Night Cafe Vincent Van Gogh

If I could hang one of Van Gogh’s Arle’s period paintings in my home, it would be The Night Café in the Place Lamartine, with its jarring palette of orange reds, citrus greens and varying yellows. Van Gogh competed the painting over three nights at the Café de la Gare. The man standing is Monsieur Ginoux, he and his wife were the café’s proprietors. Ginoux’s white coat and manner create a sharp contrast to the patrons scattered about the room. The use of colour and line keeps your eyes in constant motion. Notice how Van Gogh chose a bright yellow for the room beyond, yet a dingy yellow in the café. The former conveys cheerfulness, the other despair.

“I’ve tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and the green. The room is blood-red and dull yellow, a green billiard table in the centre, 4 lemon yellow lamps with an orange and green glow. Everywhere it’s a battle and an antithesis of the most different greens and reds; in the characters of the sleeping ruffians, small in the empty, high room, some purple and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for example, contrast with the little bit of delicate Louis XV green of the counter, where there’s a pink bouquet. The white clothes of the owner, watching over things from a corner in this furnace, become lemon yellow, pale luminous green.” – letter to Theo, September 8, 1888.

“In my picture of the “Night Café” I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur.” – letter to Theo, September 9, 1888.

“I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a night café lighted with lamps. A number of poor night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is painted red, and in it, under the gaslight, a green billiard table casts an immense shadow on the boarded floor. There are six or seven different reds in this canvas, from blood-red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens…The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant colour, well-arranged, resplendent.” – letter to his sister Wil, September 9 and 16, 1888

Compare Van Gogh’s depiction of the café with Gauguin’s version painted shortly after arriving in Arles. The focus of Gauguin’s Night Café at Arles is Madame Ginoux. His pallette more restrained than Van Gogh’s. His figures more detailed, his brushstrokes flat compared to Van Gogh’s dynamic ones. The perspective normal versus Van Gogh’s skewed view. Gauguin’s version painted in the studio, Van Gogh’s in situ. Overall a restrained mood, conveying boredom rather than despair.  Inside the Night Cafe Paul Gaugin

While Van Gogh liked Gauguin’s version of the café, “Gauguin has at the moment a painting under way of same night café that I also painted, but with figures seen in the brothels. It promises to turn out beautiful.”–letter to Bernard, Gauguin didn’t, “I’ve also done a café which Vincent likes very much and I like rather less. Basically it isn’t my cup of tea and the coarse local color doesn’t suit me. I like it well enough in paintings by other people, but for myself I’m always apprehensive. It’s purely a matter of education: One cannot remake oneself…The picture is crossed by a band of blue smoke, but the figure in front is much too neat and stiff. Oh well.” –The Art Institute of Chicago

The café and Madam Ginoux were two of a number of subjects painted by both Van Gogh and Gauguin while in Arles, each interpreted differently, with colour being one of the differentiators.

“Oh yes! he loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog. A craving for warmth. When the two of us were together in Arles, both of us insane, and constantly at war over beautiful colors, I adored red; where could I find a perfect vermilion? He [Vincent], taking his yellowest brush, wrote on the suddenly purple wall:

Je suis sain d’Esprit.     [I am of sound mind]
Je suis Saint-Esprit.”    [I am the Holy Ghost]

Paul Gauguin, article published in Essais d’Art Libre, January 1894

Consider for a moment, the psychology of colour.

Both red and yellow are stimulating. Yellow, an emotional colour, creates feelings of optimism, creativity and self-esteem. Red, a colour of action, creates energy, excitement and activity. Taken to the extreme however, yellow can induce feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. Red is known to generate aggression, defiance and fight or flight reactions.

Picture the two men, living in a small home, passionately creating art at a frenzied pace (during their 9 weeks together, Van Gogh created 36 paintings, Gauguin 21), often under absinthe’s influence, dealing with financial stress, illness and even of the negative health impacts of the paints themselves.  It’s not surprising that their collaboration ended poorly.  Given they were surrounded by Van Gogh’s yellows and, to a lesser degree, Gauguin’s reds, I wonder, did the psychology of colour play a role in their violent argument, Gauguin’s sudden departure and Van Gogh’s final breakdown?