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Canal, Venice (Venice from the Giudecca), 1952 (October)

The thickly applied, deeply scarred surfaces and the sense of urgency found in many of William Congdon’s works reflect a concern for spontaneity and physical energy which he shared with the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and others. Like many of his paintings at Kettle’s Yard, Canal, Venice is a faithful translation of the artist’s technique as he described it in 1954: “Use a knife – never a brush which only compromises. A knife constructs! – without tricks. Don’t presume to pick, mix, choose your colors, but toss a sea and fish for gold in it. It comes with courage and freedom. Don’t mix colors – mix ideas, feelings.”

Venice was a recurrent subject in Congdon’s work from the late 1940s. Specific locations inspired different series of paintings, but the artist rarely painted before the motif, preferring to work in the isolation of the studio. This allowed him to perfect the composition of his images without the constraints of realism. Canal, Venice is one of Congdon’s most dynamic Venetian paintings, in which the characteristic angling of the motif is exaggerated and the clouds and gondolas are rendered with arabesque-like, quickly incised lines. The dynamism of the work is accentuated by the use of a light palette: the silver slabs of the sky and the dragged gold of the water are divided by the diminishing line of the façades. These overpowering horizontal elements are counterbalanced by the masses of the white church of San Giorgio della Salute, the golden domes of St Mark’s basilica and, in between, the warm slash of the Campanile.

During its existence Canal, Venice has been given a number of alternative names, some of which are misleading. Congdon inscribed the present, rather generic title on the reverse. Since the view is of the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s square from across the Bacino of San Marco, the painter was probably placed on the small island of San Giorgio Maggiore rather than on the Giudecca, as one of the subsequent titles would have it. In his correspondence the artist also referred to the work with another generic title, Venice, Façade.

Provenance: gift of the artist to H.S. Ede, 1953

Painting [WC 1]


Oil on hardboard

840 x 1242 mm

About the artist

Congdon was born at Rhode Island, USA, and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He began to paint whilst studying English and Spanish literature at Yale University. He travelled extensively in Europe in the 1930s, before returning to the US in 1937 and sculpting for a period. Following war service as an ambulance driver in Africa and Italy, Congdon returned to New York, where he began to paint semi-abstract landscapes and urban scenes. In 1950 he returned to Italy, accompanied by Jim Ede, and painted intensively in Venice and Rome. These works were instrumental in establishing his reputation. In the late 1950s he settled in Italy and converted to Catholicism. He lived in Assisi in the 1960s and 1970s, painting series of pictures of Venice and Subiaco. From 1979 he lived in a monastry in Gudo Gambaredo, near Milan. Illness and old age hampered his output in his last years, although he was enthusiastically involved with his "Foundation for Improving Understanding of the Arts". Congdon typically constructed his paintings from thick layers of paint into which the outline of the subject is scored. A compulsive traveller, his range of subject matter is very diverse, and there is a persistent spiritual element underpinning his art.

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