Willem Witsen’s Venetian etchings

Victor M. Schmidt

In 1914, Willem Witsen and his wife spent two weeks in Venice on a trip to Italy that also took them to Florence, Pisa and Genoa, among other places. Eight etchings ultimately stemmed from Witsen’s stay in Venice and were offered for sale by the art dealer E.J. van Wisselingh & Co. from 1919 onwards. These well-known etchings were catalogued with annotations by Irene de Groot in 2003.1 In what follows I call attention to the locations Witsen portrayed.

Correct titles
The titles of the etchings are in Van Wisselingh’s 1934 catalogue.2 However, they appear to give vague and sometimes even erroneous information about the locations. Numbers 497 and 505 in Van Wisselingh’s catalogue do not present any problems. The first – San Thoma – indeed depicts the Rio di San Tomà, one of the canals leading to the Grand Canal [1]. The second – Rialto – features the stairs to the Ponte di Rialto [2]. The etchings titled Gondola (no. 501), Canale Grande II (no. 502) and Canale Grande III (no. 503) can also be located [3, 4, 5]. The first one depicts a house on the Grand Canal sandwiched between Ramo Moro Lin and Ramo Grassi; the famous Palazzo Grassi is next door (and, remarkably, is omitted).3 The second etching represents two other palazzi on the same side of the Grand Canal: Palazzo Benzo Foscolo and Palazzo Barbaro.4 Canale Grande III is most likely based on the Palazzi Businelli and Lanfranchi on the San Polo side of the Grand Canal.5 Palazzo Lanfranchi (at the left in the print) in reality protrudes slightly in relation to the adjacent building. Witsen must have depicted both palaces not frontally but from a slight angle, which would explain why a vertical row of windows of Palazzo Businelli is not shown in the etching and the preparatory sketch.6


Willem Witsen
San Thoma
etching with plate tone, proof 160 × 121 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Willem Witsen
etching; proof, worked up with black chalk 279 × 318 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Willem Witsen
etching and aquatint 348 × 410 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Willem Witsen
Canale Grande II
etching and aquatint 295 × 426 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Willem Witsen
Canale Grande III
etching and aquatint 278 × 320 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Erroneous titles
However, the palazzo in the etching Canale Grande I (no. 498) is not situated on the Grand Canal, but on the Rio del Mondo Novo, which is near the church and square of Santa Maria Formosa [6]. We know that Witsen was there thanks to his pocket diary, for on Thursday, 7 May, he noted: ‘after lunch drawing Sa Maria Formosa.’7 A chalk drawing of this location with colour notes in the Rijksprentenkabinet can probably be linked to this entry.8 A day later, Witsen wrote in his diary ‘studietje Formosa’ [small study Formosa], which apparently was different from the ‘drawing’ of the previous day; perhaps it was an oil study, since on Wednesday, 6 May, he noted that he had purchased a painting box. A sketchbook in which Witsen also recorded other Venetian vedute contains a drawing with colour notations featuring a different location near Santa Maria Formosa.9 This sketch was worked up in etching no. 500 titled Campo Angelo [7]. Both the sketch and the etching, however, clearly depict the Ponte del Mondo Novo seen from the Fondamenta dei Preti, with the church of Santa Maria Formosa positioned behind the artist.

Witsen did in fact also visit the Campo di Sant’Angelo, as is evidenced by the entry of 11 May: ‘studietje Angelo’ [‘small study Angelo’]. He reproduced what he saw there in another sketch in the aforementioned sketchbook and in etching no. 499, Under the Bridge [8].10 What he depicted can be seen from the square’s west side, namely the arch bridge over the canal that runs under the church of Santo Stefano via a tunnel, the Rio del Santissimo (somewhat similar to the Binnendieze in Den Bosch). Witsen later worked up the sketch in an oil painting [9].

Meaning of the locations
Witsen doubtless provided the titles of the etchings himself as he was closely involved in their publication, which was handled by Van Wisselingh. The discrepancy between some of the titles and what was actually portrayed probably had a practical reason. Witsen did not complete the etchings until years after his visit to Venice and apparently in some cases could not remember where and what he had sketched and drawn.11 Of course, one may wonder whether this matters. After all, the gondolas and other boats indicate clearly enough that the etchings feature views of Venice.

This notwithstanding, the identification of the locations does tell us something. The fact that they can be recognized is in itself significant: Witsen recorded existing places, not imaginary ones. Furthermore, the choice of locations distinctly demonstrates that Witsen was not interested in the usual vedute of Venice portrayed by so many artists before him, such as the beginning of the Grand Canal with the Punta della Dogana and the church of Santa Maria della Salute, St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace, and the Rialto Bridge. While Witsen did depict the Rialto Bridge, he did so with unusual cropping. Even the boats are not immediately recognizable as gondolas: we see the stern, rather than the prow with its characteristic fero da prora [iron bow]. The canal houses are certainly not the best known; Gondola even features one of the very few palaces and case on the Grand Canal not named after a family. The vaulted canal near the Campo Sant’Angelo is also special. Yet it is not mentioned in the Baedeker guidebook for Northern Italy, for example, nor even in the Venice guidebook of the Touring Club Italiano, which most art historians use these days. You have to have an eye for it, and many will not notice the spot (as was also the case for me at first).

Whistler as a model
Witsen’s preferences were to some extent formed by older artists, including James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), whose work Witsen greatly admired. Commissioned by the London Fine Art Society, Whistler produced a set of twelve etchings of Venice, which was exhibited in the late 1880s [10, 11]. This First Venice Set was followed by a second one a few years later. The etchings, as well as the titles, clearly reveal that Whistler was not keen on depicting the all too familiar, touristy Venice, and his example inspired many other artists.12 Whistler’s Venice etchings, however, also present aspects in which Witsen was much less interested: high angles, nocturnal settings (both sets include a few ‘nocturnes’), ‘folk types’ or cityscapes with many people in the streets (‘vedute animate’).13 By 1914 Witsen had long since mastered zooming in on canal houses and bridges in Whistler’s footsteps, and in that sense his Venetian prints are very reminiscent of some of his cityscapes of Dordrecht and Amsterdam from around 1900.14


Willem Witsen
Canale Grande I
etching and aquatint 344 × 405 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Willem Witsen
Campo Angelo
etching and aquatint 348 × 408 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Willem Witsen
Under the bridge, Venice
etching and aquatint 347 × 407 mm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Willem Witsen
Bridge in Venice 1914
olieverf op paneel 20,3 x 29,3 cm
Amersfoort, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed


James McNeill Whistler
The Balcony 1879/1880
etching and drypoint 203 x 298 mm
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art (Rosenberg collection)


James McNeill Whistler
The Doorway 1880
etching and drypoint 291 x 201 mm
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Watson Webb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer)


Detail of the map of Venice from Baedeker's Oberitalien (Leipzig 1911), with the locations of Witsen’s etchings: San Thoma [1]; Rialto [2]; Gondola [3]; Canale Grande II [4]; Canale Grande III [5]; Canale Grande I [6]; Campo Angelo [7]; Under the Bridge [8]


1 Irene de Groot, ‘Oeuvrecatalogus van de grafiek’ in: De Groot, Heijbroek, Peters et al., Willem Witsen 1860-1923. Schilderijen, tekeningen, prenten, foto’s, Bussum 2003, pp. 188-249, 259-266; the Venetian etchings are nos. 177-184. For a summary of Witsen’s sojourn, see Irene de Groot, ‘Venetië,’ ibid., pp. 136-137.

2 Het etswerk van Willem Witsen. Geïllustreerde catalogus, published by E.J. van Wisselingh & Co, Amsterdam 1934, pp. 52-55, nos. 497-504.

3 Umberto Franzoni, The Grand Canal, Venice 1993, p. 178, no. 272.

4 Ibid., p. 188, nos. 285-286.

5 Ibid., pp. 66-67, nos. 63-64.

6 The preparatory sketch is in a sketchbook in the Rijksprentenkabinet; inv. no. RP-T-1964-208-9

7 ‘na de lunch teekening Sa Maria Formosa’. The two facing pages from the diary with this note are illustrated in De Groot 2003 (note 1), p. 137.

8 RP-T-1964-255. See also De Groot 2003 (note 1), p. 265, note 354.

9 Rijksprentenkabinet RP-T-1964-208-18.

10 The diary annotation is cited by De Groot 2003 (note 1), p. 238. The preparatory sketch is in the Rijksprentenkabinet: RP-T-1964-208-33.

11 Jeroen Kapelle pointed out that Witsen often did not remember the exact locations he had drawn. In 1915 Witsen was in San Francisco and some etchings of that city, printed in 1919, also have incorrect topographical titles. See J.F. Heijbroek, ‘San Francisco,’ in: De Groot, Heijbroek, Peters et al. 2003 (note 1), pp. 160-161.

12 Alastair Grieve, Whistler’s Venice, Londen/New Haven 2000; Margaret F. MacDonald, Palaces in the night. Whistler on Venice, Aldersgot 2001; Eric Denker, Whistler and his circle in Venice, Londen 2003.

13 ‘Veduta animata’ was the term used by Italian photographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for such cityscapes.

14 For examples of prints inspired by Whistler, see Moniek Peters, ‘Was Witsen een typische schilder van Tachtig? Stijlontwikkeling en plaatsbepaling,’ in: De Groot, Heijbroek, Peters et al. 2003 (note 1), pp. 71-105, esp. pp. 84 and 86; J.F. Heijbroek, ‘”Ik ben maar 'n arme tobberd.” Willem Witsen and the Art Market,’ ibid., pp. 139-159, esp. pp. 146-147.

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