The Festa belongs to a large suite of about 80 oil paintings, drawings and watercolours created between 1908 and 1909, when Arthur Streeton was in Venice on his honeymoon. The paintings he produced at this time are among his finest and most seductively beautiful works, later becoming the subject of a number of Streeton exhibitions, with the first held at London’s Alpine Club in March 1909. Their quality was quickly recognised by perceptive contemporaries as they found their way into the distinguished collections of the day. Dame Nellie Melba and Sir Baldwin Spencer both acquired Venetian works, the latter including the brilliant Venice, Bride of the Sea, eventually owned by Sir Edward and Lady (Ursula) Hayward of Carrick Hill, Adelaide. In Sydney, Sir Marcus Clark’s collection featured Streeton’s later Venetian paintings, The Doge’s Palace and Guidecca Lagoon. Streeton’s own 1935 catalogue of works provides a veritable roll call of prominent collectors of his paintings of Venice – the Baillieus, Brookes, Grimwades, Symes and more.1 In 1973, Herbert and Ivy Brookes bequeathed Sunrise on Santa Maria della Salute to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, that same gallery having acquired San Geremia and Palazzo Labia, Venice in 1930 through the Felton Bequest.
Streeton’s catalogue lists The Festa as being in the collection of London society figure and philanthropist Sigismund Goetze. Goetze, the descendant of a German banking family and a naturalised Englishman, was also quite a prominent artist in his own right. He later became the subject of a controversy, when his commission for a major series of allegories intended to decorate the British Foreign Office was criticised by Lord Curzon for its extensive portrayal of nudes. A certain commonality in dynamic composition and virtuoso treatment of surfaces shared by Goetze and Streeton make this a noteworthy connection.
The Festa is filled with that shimmering quality that characterises all of Streeton’s Venice pictures. At the time of the Alpine Club exhibition, the art critic for the London Observer wrote, ‘… Mr Streeton has caught the opalescence and glitter of the Venetian canals and marble places in moments of bright sunshine as few artists have done before him. … What is more, the Australian painter has not confined himself to a mere architectural record, but makes us feel that Venice has retained in our days a certain something of the spirit which in the eighteenth century made it the pleasure ground of Europe …’ 2
It was an unforgettable time for Streeton, on his honeymoon in Venice in the springtime of 1908. The lyricism of these paintings undoubtedly reflects his mood at the time, as his observations of the fairytale city are merged with personal expressions of wonder and joy. This is heightened through Streeton’s dramatic use of light and tone in these works. While Venice is one of the most theatrical cities in the world, Streeton frequently darkened his foregrounds, profiles of gondolas, barges and people, contrasted against the light-filled backdrop of buildings of golden grandeur. In The Festa, the work’s romantic subject matter, smaller scale and close perspective all lend the painting a special intimacy. The backs of the figures in the foreground serve to lead the viewer into the composition. This intriguing device is very different from the wondrous panoramas found in Streeton’s other Venetian and Australian landscapes, and explains something of The Festa’s rare appeal.
Although Streeton spent a considerable amount of time in Venice in 1908, and many of these paintings have the character of having been painted en plein air, the paintings completed in 1908 formed the basis of a further group of paintings created almost 20 years later, in Melbourne.
The present painting is possibly a depiction of the site of one of Venice’s most popular annual religious festivals, the Festa della Salute (Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary) held every year on 21 November. Because Streeton had already left in October, it’s unlikely that he was an eyewitness to that particular event, and that the scene depicted here was another. Venice was then, and still is, a city known for taking delight in the colour and pageantry of Carnivals and religious festivals at every opportunity.
In The Festa , the darker foreground provides a kind of inverted proscenium arch for the drama of light to unfold on the steps and glorious façade of Baldassare Longhena’s Baroque masterpiece, The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, known generally as Santa Maria della Salute or simply Salute. Salute (literally ‘Good Health’) is one of Venice’s most prominent landmarks. It stands on the Punta della Dogana diagonally opposite the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Square at the entrance from the lagoon to the Grand Canal. Completed in 1687, over the centuries the building has attracted, from Canaletto (1697-1768) to J. M. W. Turner ( 1775-1851), many great artists. No doubt Streeton, aware of some of the more recent interpretations of the city might also have availed himself of the opportunity to inspect some of the well-known artworks by the city’s famous old masters Giovanni Bellini (c1430-1516), Titian (1487/90-1576) and Giorgione (c1476-1510) on display in the churches and public places. The city had been internationally famous for its artistic production since the late fifteenth century. The combination of architecture and figures painted dramatically and freely, particularly in its palette and, as noted earlier by Observer’ s critic, the opalescent brushstrokes recall the work of Tintoretto (1518-94).
In the same autumn of 1908 that Streeton made his second visit, Claude Monet (1840-1926) painted La Salute. It was a favourite subject and features in many of Streeton’s paintings, such as Fishing Boats, Venice, given to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1908 by Howard Hinton. Another evocative work, La Salute, from Riva Schiavoni is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Private collectors also treasure their Venetian gems - of the Doge’s Palace, Rialto Bridge or the Piazza San Marco. The very names fill one with excitement through their evocation of the most magical city in the world bathed in sunlight or the moon. In The Festa, the vivacity of life is captured through the vivid strokes of the brush and sensuous paint, the flight of birds, and its ravishing beauty. There is no doubt that the subject of Venice with its unique combination of water, architecture, festive colour and light were well suited to Streeton’s talents, honed on Sydney Harbour. The city’s sights and the presence of the old masters brought out the best in Streeton. His Venetian paintings are distinctly his and stand up to comparison with any of the artists who tackled the subject. Nowadays his Venetian paintings are amongst the most sought after works Streeton painted over a long and productive career.
1. Streeton, A., The Arthur Streeton Catalogue, self-published, Melbourne 1935, no.345, p.122
2. Observer, London, 4 April 1909, quoted in Anne Galbally, Arthur Streeton, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1979, p.71
David Thomas & Timothy Abdallah