At the Venetian Exposition


“IT is a beginning only, signora,”said the little gray-haired Italian to the Englishwoman he was leading slowly from canvas to canvas, “but it is a beginning full of promise for the future. Art is sacred in every age, and Venice,” — with an impressive pause, — “ Venice shall build her a now shrine.”

“ It is very nice, I am sure,”replied the Englishwoman, who had been carefully averting her eyes from a large picture equally meretricious in sentiment and execution, “very nice indeed ; and your rooms are not at all stuffy ; and the tea is remarkably good. “ With which comprehensive art criticism she passed on her way, and the rest of the conversation was lost to me.

There is no doubt that the Venetians are pleased with their Exposition. They crowd to the Public Gardens every afternoon, paying their two-francs admission fee without murmur, and wandering up and down the pretty rooms with an air of proud possessorship curious to see in a people whose priceless pictures have for centuries been the envy of the civilized world. Even men and women of the people, with yellow silk handkerchiefs tied over their curly hair, join the moving throng, or sit at the little tables spread here and there under the pleasant shade. On the other hand, tourists are noticeably absent, although every hotel in Venice is now filled to overflowing. Perhaps they find enough to occupy them in the Accademia and the Ducal Palace. Perhaps they think two francs a heavy price to pay, when half that money opens to them the finest galleries in Europe. Be this as it may, their numbers are few, and they seem by no means so content with what they see as are the smiling crowds around them. One circumstance, less insignificant than it appears, adds largely to their manifest dejection. With the customary inaptitude of Italians for affairs, the directors of the Exposition have suffered the supply of catalogues to be exhausted, and in reply to the frenzied inquiries of energetic Americans the official at the gate tranquilly says that a new edition is being printed. He does not mention when this new edition will be attainable. He cannot understand — nor can any of his leisurely countrymen — why next week or the week after will not answer the purpose just as well as this especial afternoon. He smiles and shrugs his shoulders, and probably wonders whether all Americans are born in haste, and go on hurrying madly to their graves.

In the mean while, the unfortunate tourists may be seen wandering about in pitiable perplexity. No well-regulated English or American woman is at home in an art gallery without her catalogue; it is like being in church without a Prayer Book or a Hymnal; and when her catalogue is astray, her irritation mounts to fever heat. Italians have a passion for moving their pictures from one room to another, for no discernible reason, but just as the proprietors of our mammoth shops at home move their goods from one department to another, so that you find books or lawn-tennis sets one day where you found velvets the day before. The Accademia in Venice has recently passed through a migratory period of this kind, and it is a diverting and a pathetic sight to behold the dismay of travelers who can find no single picture where Baedeker or Hare says it ought to be. Their confusion, however, is not without a guiding star ; time and patience will unravel even the tangled web woven for them by official ingenuity ; but in the Exposition the case is hopeless. A number of the pictures, especially those of the Italian school, are of a highly problematic character; and, in addition to not knowing who painted them, the unlucky visitor without a catalogue remains in painful ignorance as to what they are about. Many are the speculations that I overhear, and wrathful are the comments that accompany them. Why do five women, without any clothes, huddle and sprawl on the coffin of a dead man, scattering his roses to the wind ? Why do three women, without any clothes, roll a large wheel laboriously on the ocean ? Why does one woman, without any clothes, stand in a copper basin and twine a green snake about her ? These things, it must be admitted, are trying to the curious mind. Even Gerard Mnnthe’s remarkable illustrations of the Norse stories are maddening conundrums to people who have no means of deciphering them ; while as for the English artists who take for their inspiration some little-known legend or obscure line of poetry, their pictures are as unintelligible, without a clue, as the fragmentary conversation of Mr. F.’s aunt.

The true vagabond, however, who has wandered long enough over the face of the earth, finds himself very much at home in this little Venetian Exposition, where nearly every painting of merit is familiar to his eyes. Old friends from the Salon, the Royal Academy, the Glass Palace in Munich, the Dresden Exhibition, and last, but not least, from the Chicago Fair, greet him at every step. Here is Carolus Duran’s Poet with the Mandolin, which a year ago hung in the Champ de Mars ; and here are Millais’s pretty, rosy children bringing their dead bird to the old ornithologist, — the kind of picture which England truly loves; here is Dagnan-Bouveret’s Madonna, whiterobed like a nun, carrying her divine Babe beneath the sun-flecked trees, and Uhde’s Flight into Egypt, so touching in its homely simplicity of conception ; here are Besnard’s portraits, triumphs of uncanny impressionism; and here is Max Liebermann’s delightful Market Scene in Haarlem, with its marvelous splashes of paint, and its pink and blue pigs streaked with lines of crimson. It has been months since we parted, in Dresden, from these dear pigs,— which can be recognized as such only when seen from exactly the proper distance, — and our joy at meeting them again is so fervent that we scandalize the decorous groups around us. So we go away, and divert ourselves by examining the pictures which King Humbert has bought, “pour encouragre les autres.”They are upwards of a dozen in number, principally landscapes and marines or simple studies of domestic life. All of them are very large canvases, and the thought forces itself upon our minds that if his Majesty repeats this reckless generosity in the yearly expositions to come, the walls of the Quirinal will be as amply lined as are the walls of the Doges’ Palace. He has established his precedent on a dangerously lavish scale.

Outside, in the pretty garden, groups of people are enjoying the pictures after the fashion of the English lady,— drinking their tea or coffee, and chatting indolently with friends. The sunlight filters down upon them with a soft radiance, and the wind from the sea brings with it an unchilled freshness, the gentle breath of the Adriatic. We too will worship art after these pleasant rites; but before we go, we steal back for one last look at the Haarlem pigs, and I overhear a hardy pun from an Englishman whose wife is examining the picture with strained and feverish attention. “It is so curious, Herbert,” she says wonderingly. “When I stand where you are, I can see plainly that they are pigs; but when I go a little closer, they just seem to resolve themselves into paint.” “ Into pigment, dear,” is the jocose reply; and as she turns her admiring and reproachful eyes upon him, we deem it best to go.