Sargent, Venetian Bead Stringers, and Acqua Alta, Oh My!

I’ve been chastised over my last post.  No pretty pictures.  So let me begin with a pretty picture. Here you go:

John Singer Sargent, Venetian Bead Stringers, 1880-2

This isn’t what I usually think of when I think of Sargent.  I usually think of a portrait, like this:

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892

Or these:

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883-4

John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882

Or even this:

John Singer Sargent, Spanish Dancer, 1880-1

So back to the first image,  Sargent’s “The Venetian Bead Stringers.”  What do you get about this profession in late 19th century Venice from looking at the picture?  It looks like bead stringing was done by women (which it was), in the dark (which it might have been), and it doesn’t look like work that was too exciting, either (which it wasn’t). Look at this image, though, also of bead stringers in Venice, painted at the same time:

Robert Frederick Blum, Venetian Bead Stringers, 1887-8

They’re outside, it’s light, one of them is laughing, they’re talking.  It might not be exciting work, but they don’t look nearly as bored and despondent as the women in Sargent’s painting.   Both are definitely romanticized depictions, although both are painted in such a way that they look like they could be real scenes, painted as they occurred, wouldn’t you agree? So what’s the deal?  To figure this out, let’s look briefly at 19th century Venetian bead stringing, which in itself sounds romantic, doesn’t it?  Turns out it’s not.  In the mid 19th century, it was done by poor women who were not well paid. Bead stringing was not going to get them out of their financial hole.  These women worked mostly in their homes and were paid by the piece. It makes sense that they would work outside, then, doesn’t it, where the light is better.  I’m trying to imagine working with tiny beads in that dark room in the Sargent painting, and it makes my eyes hurt just thinking about it.  If you want to learn more about Venetian bead stringers and makers from the middle ages on, check out chapter 2 in the Google book, “Beads and bead makers: gender, material culture, and meaning.”  (The editors/writers definitely have an agenda, but to be fair, they state it clearly in their title, and it’s an interesting read.)

I expected to find that one of these paintings was a true depiction, and one wasn’t.  That one was an accurate representation of the plight of Venetian bead stringers, and clearly by using the word “plight”, I’m showing that I expected this to be Sargent’s.  But it turns out that both are probably fairly accurate, or at least possible, in their own way.  Either could probably be used as an illustration of bead stringing in Venice in the 1880s, but neither gives the whole story. I get so frustrated when an author uses a work of art as proof of something without explaining why.   For example, if we took either painting and used it as evidence that women in 19th century Venice dressed like this, we might be right, and we might be wrong.  Although we often assume differently, artists don’t always paint (or sculpt, or etch, etc) from life. The clothing choices could be made for many reasons — that’s what women were wearing, what women used to wear (shown maybe to evoke the good old days), the colors make the effect that the artist wanted, the draping of the fabric is fun to paint, maybe there were political or cultural reasons for choosing this clothing in these colors, and on and on.  When an author uses art as proof, the author needs to back it up with more information.

Just for fun, and because I probably won’t talk about Sargent again, I want to show you one of my Sargent favs:

John Singer Sargent, Pavement of St. Mark’s, Venice, 1880-2

I  love everything about this painting.  I love the architectural elements, the colors, that it’s San Marco in Venice.  What I love the most, though, is that it shows the uneven floor of the building due to acqua alta (high water).  I’m fascinated by this:  at certain times of year, the tides are higher, and water floods up into the square and into the church.  Over hundreds of years it’s made the floor uneven.  There’s really nothing like seeing the boards set up so that people can still get into the church over the water.  Well, maybe seeing the undulating floor and knowing what caused it is equally fascinating.  And that people over the centuries have walked on these same floors.  Another connection with the past.

Acqua Alta, San Marco, Venice

2 thoughts on “Sargent, Venetian Bead Stringers, and Acqua Alta, Oh My!

  1. Oh wonderful! What a great topic, in that all art is perspective and the artists desire to persuade. And as we all perceive through so many different lenses, most we likely don’t know about, there could never be one true depiction or truth, right? I too lose faith in any artist that proclaims this to be “the truth.” Unless it’s acknowledged as simply their own truth, which is exactly what it ever is. Lovely, thoughtful post. Thanks so much!

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