John Henry Twachtman - Fishing Boat, Venice
Fishing Boat, Venice, ca. 1878
Pencil on paper
11 x 15-3/4 inches

private collection

In the spring of 1877, John Twachtman left Munich, where he had been studying for two years, and joined his friends Frank Duveneck and William Merritt Chase in Venice. For the three artists, a motivation for visiting Venice was the possibility of finding patrons, an aim in which they had experienced some success in Munich. But, upon arrival in Venice, they found the city filled with other artists who had similar intentions, many of whom were more well known, and they were compelled to abandon commercial hopes. Living frugally, they shared a three-room apartment and lived on dried beef and beans. As Chase's biographer, Katharine Metcalf Roof, wrote: "the three painters lived together in the simplest and most economical fashion. Indeed their stay was prolonged to a greater length than they had originally intended because they lacked the funds necessary for the act of departure." Their return trip was also delayed as Chase became ill with malaria. His two companions took turns caring for him until he recovered. A relief from the trials of bohemian life came from Katherine Bronson, sister-in-law of Scribner's editor Richard Watson Gilder, who occasionally invited the artists to soirées at her palatial Venetian home. It was only when Duveneck was paid for a portrait commissioned by an American who was visiting Venice, that the artists were able to return to Munich. They were back in the German city probably in March 1878.

In Venice, the artists explored outdoor painting. Roof noted that their sojourn "was one full of interest, and as they painted outdoors together, the art of the associated painters grew steadily stronger and more individual." Clark also reported that, "numerous studies of the [Venice] period bear witness to [Twachtman's] industry. . . and much of the time was passed out of doors along the waterways of the picturesque city."

Indeed, Twachtman's time in Venice was especially productive, and resulted in a change in his art. At first, he created a number of panoramic scenes that reflected the tradition of the Venetian vedute of eighteenth-century painters Antonio Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. However, by the winter of 1878, he had cast off such a conventional approach, and had begun to use the techniques he had learned in Munich to convey his immediate experiences of his sites. He painted from boats and piers, using his brushes expressively to capture ephemeral qualities of atmosphere, light, and juxtapositions of form and tone. He took a similar approach in his drawings. Rather than using drawing to create preliminary studies for paintings, he chose to create drawings that were unique works in their own right. Using his pencil with the freedom of a brush, he blocked in forms, capturing their essential lines and masses. Through this approach, he conveyed not only what he saw, but also its effect on him.

Twachtman's approach is demonstrated in Fishing Boat, Venice. Here he took his vantage point from a pier overlooking a Venetian waterfront, portraying a wharf breakwater where a three-masted schooner was docked, while a building on the opposite shore appears to stand directly behind the vessel. Twachtman used his pencil with energy and agility to convey the lively array of forms. Instead of outlining them, he sketched them freely, differentiating them simply by a shift in the rhythm, direction, and force of his pencil. He eschewed a traditional scheme in which spatial depths are clearly demarcated. Rather he wanted to emphasize the way that shapes overlapped, their presence indicated by degrees of tone and the varying vigor of his drawing. The result is an image that expresses the artist's immediate exprerience with freshness and vitality.


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