Richard Parkes Bonington

VIEW OF VENICE BY BONINGTON 
ACQUIRED BY KIMBELL ART MUSEUM


The Kimbell Art Museum has added to its collection an exquisite oil sketch by the British artist Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828), The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Toward the Rialto, painted on the spot in 1826.

                                       
                                                                                         Click on the image to learn more.

Director of the Museum Dr. Eric M. Lee commented: “The opportunity to acquire one of Bonington’s beautiful oil sketches of Venice is extremely rare. Only eight are known, four of which were already in museum collections before the present one was acquired by the Kimbell. This is an exciting acquisition for us, from both aesthetic and art-historical points of view, and we know it will give great pleasure to our visitors.”
 
The painting was offered to the Museum by the New York art dealer Richard Feigen, acting on behalf of its then-owners. The sketch is painted in oil on a piece of millboard measuring 13 7/8 x 17 7/8 inches (35.2 x 45.4 centimeters).

Like the best of Bonington’s oil sketches of Venice, the work shows him bringing to oil painting the subtle effects of light and atmosphere that he had mastered as a watercolorist. The view is from the Riva del Carbone, looking along the Grand Canal, Venice’s busy main thoroughfare, toward the famous Rialto Bridge. This was to become a popular view of the city, probably the most frequently painted in the nineteenth century.

Most scholars and admirers of Bonington consider his Venetian oil sketches to be among the high points of his short but brilliant career, combining his remarkable powers of observation with a seductive technique. As much as any of his works, they bear out the remark of his friend Eugène Delacroix, the great French Romantic painter, that he possessed “a lightness of touch . . . that makes his works a type of diamond that flatters and ravishes the eye.” 

After returning to Paris, the artist apparently used his sketch as the basis for a slightly smaller studio-executed version, datable to 1826–27 [oil on canvas, 9 x 13 inches (23 x 33 centimeters), National Gallery of Art, Washington]. The later version differs in the details of the river traffic and cloud formations, and in the addition of some boys bathing on the right. 

Within the Kimbell’s collection, the work relates to Canaletto’s The Molo, Venice (c. 1735) and Francesco Guardi’s Venice Viewed from the Bacino (c. 1780), inviting interesting comparisons between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ways of seeing Venice, the native response as against that of the foreigner. Perhaps more significantly, it joins Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s View of Olevano (1827) and Caspar David Friedrich’s Mountain Peak with Drifting Clouds (c. 1835) to form a powerful group of landscapes from around 1830, when the Romantic movement in European art was at its height. The similarities and differences among these three works would say much about Romantic painters’ various responses to place and to nature.

This work joins Michelangelo’s The Torment of Saint Anthony (c. 1487–88) as one of two paintings acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum in 2009. Admission is always free to view works in the Museum’s permanent collection. 

Richard Parkes Bonington
Bonington was one of the most supremely gifted landscape painters Britain has produced, comparable in artistic stature to J. M. W. Turner and John Constable but less familiar because he died young and left a comparatively small body of works, most on a modest scale. He was a remarkable figure, not least in bridging the very separate artistic worlds of Britain and France, enjoying considerable success in both despite his youth. 

He was born in the town of Arnold, near Nottingham, but from 1817 he and his family lived in France; his father was in the lace business. He showed a natural facility for art as a boy and began to train for a professional career, first learning the technique of watercolor. In Paris he became close friends with the young Delacroix, who is represented in the Kimbell’s collection by the painting Selim and Zuleika (1857), and studied under the Neoclassical history-painter Baron Antoine-Jean Gros. Like all of Gros’s students, he engaged in outdoor (plein-air) sketching, a practice that would be the basis for his best work as a landscapist.
 
From the time he left Gros’s studio in 1822 until his untimely death from tuberculosis six years later, aged only 25, Bonington would be constantly on the move. His sketching tours in northern France resulted in some topographical lithographs, many astonishingly fresh and subtle watercolors, and some equally accomplished landscapes in oil, mostly showing scenes along the coast. In 1825 he visited London with Delacroix, after which the two men briefly shared a studio in Paris, painting subjects from medieval and Renaissance history—some taken from the novels of Sir Walter Scott—and fantasies of oriental life. Throughout his mature career Bonington painted such Romantic costume-pieces—in the so-called style troubadour—in parallel with his work as a landscapist.

Bonington and Venice

Bonington visited Venice in the company of his patron Charles Rivet, a French aristocrat who was also an amateur artist. They stayed for about four weeks in April–May 1826. “Since the cold has become even more disagreeable in Venice over the last three or four days,” wrote Rivet in a letter to his parents, “we have managed only a modest tranquil existence . . . We eat early, I with my chocolate and my companion with his favorite tea. Then we go out with our color boxes, and sketchbooks. When time allows, we make sketches after nature, on the Grand Canal, at the Rialto . . .” Most of the “sketches after nature” that Bonington made in Venice would have taken the form of graphite (pencil) drawing, although clearly he also worked en plein air (outdoors) in watercolor and oil. He is likely to have elaborated upon some or all of the watercolors and oils later, after returning to his studio in Paris, and certainly used his various kinds of on-the-spot sketch as the basis for oils that were entirely studio productions, some on a fairly large scale. Beyond the graphite drawings, his known Venetian views consist of 15 watercolors, 8 on-the-spot oil sketches, and 7 studio oils.

At this date Venice was not the popular attraction for artists from other parts of Europe that it was to become. Indeed, Bonington played a leading role in the creation of a modern, Romantic vision of its beauties—an atmospheric, even ethereal vision quite distinct from that of the earlier Venetian vedutisti (view painters), most notably Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. In this he led the way for Turner, who had visited Venice some years before but would not produce the first of his spectacular Venetian oil paintings until 1833.
 
The poignant Romantic idea of Venice as a fragile, evanescent creation—a ghost of its former self, its glories all in the past—had already taken shape in literature, notably the poems of Lord Byron, and this is the Venice that contemporaries were primed to see in the work of Bonington. As the travel writer Antoine Valéry wrote in his Voyages historiques et littéraires en Italie, pendant les années 1826, 1827 et 1828, published in 1831: “The paintings of Canaletto have so familiarized us with the harbor, squares, and monuments of Venice that when we penetrate into the city itself, it appears as if already known to us. Bonington, an English artist of melancholy cast, has painted some new views of Venice, in which is most perfectly sketched its present state of desolation; these, compared with those of the Venetian painter [i.e., Canaletto], resemble the picture of a woman still beautiful, but worn down by age and misfortune.”