Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

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A Gondolier

A Gondolier dates from after Whistler's arrival in Venice in September 1879, probably in the winter of 1879-1880. 1

According to the Pennells, the American artist Ross Sterling Turner (1847-1915) 'remembers that he found Whistler in a small house with a small garden in front of the Frari ... and a large [canvas], with a big gondolier sketched on it, stood by the door.' 2 Whistler wrote from Venice in 1880 that he had been trying to paint a portrait of Giovanni, a gondolier: 'A Superb chap I had posing for me ... my swell Gondolier', but the sitter fell ill:

'I am just a wee bit down again ... A superb chap I had posing for me must needs get an awful cold, fell into the hands of one a couple of the native doctors, who discover pleurisy or pneumonia or whatever it may be involving lungs and thereupon bleed him to within an inch of his life! The priest is sent for and he is going to leave me, with my unfinished picture, for another and a cheaper world when I come in one morning and give him a milk punch, throw open the windows and let in the sun which happened not to be frozen at the moment and persuade him to stay - but it will be some time before he is off his bed poor fellow - and my swell Gondolier must wait! - It is well nothing has been said about it.' 3

When Giovanni was convalescing, Katherine Colman de Kay (Mrs Arthur Bronson) (1834-1901) took an interest in his welfare, as Whistler told his mother:

'Mrs Bronson who is the most generous woman possible has been so kind to a poor Gondolier I was painting, and who fell ill with dreadful cough and fever - I told her all about him - and she at once had all sorts of nice things made for him - and Miss Chapman who is staying with the Bronsons has been herself to call on poor Giovanni - He is getting well now I hope and will soon be able again to pose for his picture.' 4

A Mr Brooks told the Pennells that Whistler 'started to paint a picture of a gondolier, who fell ill ... the cure was slow ... probably he never touched the canvas again.' 5


1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 216).

2: Pennell 1911 A [more], p. 189.

3: Whistler to H. E. Whistler, [20 February/March 1880], GUW #06690.

4: J. Whistler to A. M. Whistler, [March/May 1880], GUW #13502.

5: Pennell 1908 [more], vol. 1, p. 266.

Last updated: 10th November 2019 by Margaret