FLORENCE AND THE AMERICANS

Sargent, At Torre Galli.jpg

This season: Olivia Weinberg welcomes the return of John Singer Sargent and the American impressionists to the Tuscan capital ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012

As with all long-term relationships, Florence and the Americans have history. They have been through the good times and the bad, the break-ups and the make-ups. Now they are back holding hands and exchanging flirty glances with an exhibition that digs up the past and shows us who’s who.

At the end of the American civil war in 1865, there was a surge in the number of American artists travelling to Europe, and the places that meant most to them were Venice, Rome and Florence. And so a gaggle of fresh-faced, boisterous Americans took up residence in the Tuscan capital, wooed by its irresistible good looks and ribollita. John Singer Sargent was one of them. A Florentine by birth, a fully fledged expatriate by choice, he is the most celebrated artist here (above: “At Torre Galli: Ladies in a Garden”, 1910). His watercolours are masterpieces, and his portrait of a pensive Henry James is a double whammy with a simple message—an important American in Florence, painted by an important American in Florence. But it is the lesser-known Duveneck Boys, a group of friends-cum-students-cum-artists, who chime the loudest.

Their front man, Frank Duveneck, was a charmer. He lived, worked and taught in Florence in the 1880s with Joseph DeCamp and John White Alexander, two fellow Americans who had followed him from the Academy in Munich. Promising to paint assiduously, the boys soon reverted to type and spent more time hosting parties at the Villa Castellani, home to one Elizabeth Boott. The views were spectacular and there are paintings to prove it—open, expressive, almost brilliant—but boys will be boys and Duveneck had something else in mind. After a long-winded engagement, he and Boott married in 1886. Mission accomplished, history lesson over. 

Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, March 3rd to July 15th

Olivia Weinberg is a former Intelligent Life intern and a master's graduate of King's College, London