In our last post we noted with a decidedly Italian sense of fascination the influence of the great artistic nation on the relatively uncultured and young Americans. One artist to be heavily influenced by the Italian masters was John Singer Sargent, whose paintings reflect many scenes of famous and not so famous Italian landmarks. One such recent example was the sale this month of his watercolour painting, The Piazzetta with Gondolas (circa 1903). The Sargent painting is a lively and energetic case of his Venice paintings from his nearly annual visits from 1898 to 1913, reflecting his unrelenting love for, and attraction to the great Italian city. The painting is well known because Sargent painted it from an experimental vantage point: a gondola, which allowed him to capture the dazzling tones famous in his watercolour paintings. Although this painting is not included in the Americans in Florence exhibition, many other great paintings are.

Our last post stopped at part one of the blockbuster exhibition, which naturally leads us to consider Section two, titled Americans in Florence. For portrait and self-portrait fans, this represents every artist’s most sordid wet dream: dozens of high quality oil paintings from the likes of Singer Sargent, Frank Duveneck, Cecilia Beaux, William Merritt Chase, Robert Vonnoh, Edmund Charles Tarbell, Frederick Childe Hassam and Thomas Eakins are included to personify the significant Anglo-American colony of scholars, collectors, writers and art critics who adopted Florence and Italian Renaissance ideals as their own.

Section three shifts from examining the community as a whole to highlighting the role of one influential American-Italian collector, Egisto Fabbri. Fabbri was a first generation migrant to America, where he studied art at the Julian Alden Weir school. He moved to Paris to study and collect oil paintings by Cézanne, Pissarro and Degas, and then moved back to Florence to continue the family business in silk and art collection and dealing. Through his work he supported many American artists, including William Morris Hunt, John La Farge, Mabel Hooper La Farge, the famous Impressionist Mary Cassatt, James Abbot McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent himself; naturally, oil paintings from all these artists are included in this section, which also features paintings of Fabbri’s favourite locations around Florence.

Section four of the exhibition builds on the famous imagery of Tuscany and Florence, immortalised in words by writers such as Edith Wharton, Edward Morgan Foster, Elisabeth Pennel and Maurice Hewlett. While words painted one picture, the American artists who painted the landscapes are juxtaposed next to the famous prose to illustrate the full artistic descriptions of what is considered some of the most beautiful bucolic scenes in the word. The artwork of American painters such as Elihu Vedder, George Inness, Merritt Chase, Singer Sargent and Hassam are included, capturing scenes such as elegance of villa life, the famous gardens of Lucca and Florence and the Carrara marble quarries.

Finally, visitors to section five, the last section, will see America through the new “lens of painting and literature” as the section is aptly called. Equipped with their new experiences the artists returned to their home, where the New World was interpreted in vastly different ways after their experience on the Old World. Brilliantly chosen paintings by Whistler, Cassatt and Sargent, shows this (on their short holidays back), as well as more famous American landscape works by the likes of Tarbell, Weir, Hassam, Chase, Benson and Beaux. The exhibition argues that the return of these American painters, and their experience, led to America’s first national school of painting in the form of the Hudson River School. Although academically debated, the notion is one worth considering throughout the entire exhibition.