A Trip to Historic Venice and its Glassmakers at Mystic Seaport Museum

"Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano,” is on display through Feb. 27, 2023 at the Mystic Seaport Museum. (CT Examiner)

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MYSTIC — In the lobby of the Mystic Seaport Museum, near a clam-shaped hand-blown glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, a full-sized wooden gondola has been on display.

The two objects provide a symbolic introduction to “Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano,” a show about the art, craft and history of Venice and Murano from about 1860 to 1920. 

The 50-year-old gondola, on loan from La Gondola in Providence, represents the iconic watercraft of Venice, said Elysa Engelman, director of exhibits at the museum.  

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“The only way you could get to Murano was by boat. In the 1870s, you could take a train to Venice, but most of the transportation was by boat once you were there,” she told CT Examiner.

The Chihuly piece — and work by other contemporary glass artists in the exhibit — demonstrates that glass-making continued and grew after 1920, said Engelman.

“It shows that it continues both in traditional forms and in these really imaginative, creative, more experimental ones,” she said.

Though Murano was renowned for centuries for its glassmaking, nearly all of the city’s glass furnaces were idle in the early 1800s due to increased competition and the political climate. 

But a glass revival began in the 1860s, coinciding with American interest in Venice as a tourist destination. Collectors took interest as Venice became a mecca for artists, who depicted glassmakers and their wares, as well as the ports, plazas, canals, and churches of the city. 

Among those artists were John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, who focused on artisans and working class people in Venice instead of the upper class.

“A Venetian Woman” by John Singer Sargent (credit: Cincinnati Art Museum, The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial)

Sargent, who was born Italy, painted a number of works depicting glass workers. In “A Venetian Woman,” he depicted a bead maker holding blue glass rods that were to be cut into beads, which were polished and threaded for export. Known as impiraresse, Venetian women of all ages were employed by the glass industry to string beads.

Whistler arrived in Venice in 1979 with a commission from a London gallery for a set of etchings. “Bead Stringers,” was one of 26 etchings from Venice that he showed in London in 1880. 

The exhibition also includes examples of lacemaking, mosaics and jewelry — three industries that underwent a renaissance in Venice at the same time as glass making. 

“With the glass, the lace and the beads, it’s kind of looking at them less as craft and more as art. The same collectors were collecting the paintings, the glass, the lace, the beads all at the same time – they saw it as very much overlapping,” said Engelman. 

Also on view are examples of contemporary art glass pieces by Jeffrey P’An of Mystic, Yolanda Smith of the Seaconke/Wampanoag Tribe, and Deborah Czeresko, who won Season 1 of Blown Away on Netflix.

Engelman said she wants visitors to leave the show feeling as if they’ve been “transported.” 

“I want people to feel they’ve traveled to a different time, a different place, and they found something that resonated with them about a Venetian  memory, or a Venetian fantasy,” Engelman said. “To feel like they’ve walked kind of in the shoes of some of these artists as they’ve gone around in the streets, sketching, visiting the churches, seeing the furnaces, that they’ve had a taste of what that experience was like.”

The show runs through Feb. 27, 2023, and includes more than 115 works from over 40 institutions and private collections. The exhibit originated at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and traveled to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, before it opened on Oct. 15  at Mystic Seaport’s Thompson building.

“Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano” runs through Feb. 23, 2023 at the Mystic Seaport Museum. (Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum)