Venice in the shadows: Five unforgettable etchings

by | Aug 25, 2022 | Maritime Art, Culture and History

“How can I be substantial if I fail to cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole…”

C. G. Jung, ‘Modern Man In Search Of A Soul’ (1933)

A painting of Venice in radiant colours is captivating. But an etching that shows the fabled city filled with shadows  can be more powerful. It may transfix the viewer and set loose one’s imagination

Here are five unforgettable etchings of Venice in its shadowy aspect. Each is followed by my annotation (shown in bold). Click on the images for a fuller view.

In the Eye of the Sun, Venice, 1915–16
Mortimer Menpes (British, 1855–1938)
Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery

This etching is notable for its wonderful interplay of light and shadow. The sunlight that bathes the bridge and the buildings behind it is reflected in the water. However, shadows actually take up most of the work. They drape the structures standing at both ends of the bridge. The even float and make the water shimmer.

Rainy Night, Venice, 1880
Otto H. Bacher (American, 1856–1909)
Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Neither night nor rain can suppress the beauty of Venice. In the falling rain — executed with a flurry of vigorous thin lines —- the silhouettes of buildings are punctuated by tiny lights which are reflected on the lagoon. A gondola slowly moves away from the shore, leaving in its trail a streak of shadow on the water. This is a poetic scene.

Nocturne: Palaces, 1879–80
James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903)
Courtesy of The Metropolian Museum of Art

“One of the most evocative of Whistler’s Venetian etchings” is how The Metropolitan Museum of Art decribes Nocturne: Palaces. It is hard to argue with the statement. A gas lantern illuminates the walls of two buildings, creating a narrow watery path that leads to the darkness. The water in the foreground is eerily calm, an effect Whistler created by delicately wiping vertical streaks of ink on the sheet.

Sta. Maria della Fava (Venice set no. 1), 1925
James McBey (Scottish, 1883–1959)
Courtesy of The Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts

There is a palpable air of mystery in McBey’s etching. Fashionably dressed women are seen outside the Santa Maria della Fava church. On the right side, a woman helps a friend get off a gondola. One may assume that they are about to attend a wedding. The church entrance is pitch dark. So is the circular window called “rose window” in Gothic architecture) above it. The entire facade of the church stands against a completely dark sky, which gives it a ghostly appearance.

Venetian Set: No. 1, Palazzo Ca d’Oro, Venice, date unknown
Sidney Mackenzie Litten (British, 1887-1934)
Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Sidney Mackenzie’s etching of the Palazzo Ca d’Oro is jaw-dropping. Gondolas sail phantom-like in front of the palace. The Grand Canal is a tapestry of light and shadow, and the whole scene is like a psychic’s vision of Venice and its long and colourful history. [READ MORE: History of Venice]

~ Barista Uno

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