John Singer Sargent, known in his lifetime for supreme virtuosity, was probably America's most widely respected expatriate painter. Among his most original, arresting works are cityscapes and interiors of Venice, where he made long sojourns in the fall and winter of 1880-81 and the summer of 1882. Venice was a popular destination for artists during these years; James McNeill Whistler lived there, and such artists as John Twachtman and Frank Duveneck passed through to study the city's renowned light and picturesque views.
Venetian Interior, painted sometime between 1880 and 1882, is one of three related genre pictures by Sargent. In the dark, cool interior of the shabby Palazzo Rezzonico, patchworked with light from the outside, six women and a child string beads, promenade in the hall, and quietly rest or observe passers-by from the window This same dim hallway appears in a pastel by Whistler, Palace in Rags (ca. 1879-80). The women in the palazzo are more than just elements in a casually observed moment of Venetian life, for Sargent treated the nearest woman as he would the subject of a portrait: she regards the viewer as if catching a voyeur in the act. The other women idle amid a profusion of abstracted rectangles, visible in various combinations as lintels, doorways, coffers in the ceiling, furniture, and reliefs against the wall. These forms are crossed by daringly oblique swaths of light.
Sargent's handling of paint reveals his mastery of suggestion and evocation, and his love of pigment finds expression in the loose, confident motions that sculpt form from light. One of the boldest brushstrokes in American nineteenth-century painting may be the slash of light from an unseen window that cuts across the gray-green floor. The heavily applied gray and black pigments convey the new sobriety of Sargent's recently acquired "Spanish" palette.