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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

William James Müller’s Captivating Watercolor of the Rialto Bridge, Venice

William James Müller (1812-1845)
The Rialto Bridge, Venice
Watercolor over pencil heightened with touches of bodycolor
Paper size: 17 3/4” x 29 1/2”; framed size: 29” x 40 3/4”
Signed l.r.: W. Müller/1835 (?)
Provenance: Anonymous sale at Sotheby’s, 10th October 1974, Lot 46
Exhibited: (Probably) London, Society of British Artists, 1836, no.344

The British fascination with travel to continental Europe began in the Georgian period with the institution of the Grand Tour.  A nobleman's education was not considered complete without first-hand experience of the monuments and antiquities of ancient Italy, complementing his knowledge of Greek and Latin texts.  As the classical scholar Conyers Middleton stated in 1729, "At our setting out through France, the pleasures that we find, like those of our youth, are of the gay fluttering kind, which grow by degrees, as we advance towards Italy, more solid, manly, and rational, but attain not their full perfection until we reach Rome."  Later in the century, as the archaeological sites at Herculaneum and Pompeii were excavated, the Tour extended far south of Naples.

The desire for European travel continued well into the Victorian period and now was not just the luxury of the aristocracy but also of the middle classes.  This was mainly facilitated by the development of the railways allowing for much easier mobility.  The Georgian obsession with Classicism was replaced by the Romantic movement, which emphasized a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature and a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect. Once again, travel through France, Germany and Italy provided scholars and artists with inspiration and indeed, the great poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were to travel to the Italian lakes, Florence, Rome and many other sites between 1818 and 1822.

Müller made his first visit to Europe between 1834 and 1835, traveling with George Arther Fripp.  They left London on 12th July 1834 and, traveling via Belgium, the Rhine, Frankfurt and Zurich, reached Venice on 29th September, staying there for nearly two months.   After going on to Rome they began their return journey on 16th January 1835, reaching Paris by February. 

A number of drawings and watercolor sketches were made on this journey, and Müller continued to paint finished watercolors and oils of Venetian subjects throughout the later 1830's and as late as 1842.  It is tempting to equate this large, highly finished watercolor with the work exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1836. A small watercolor sketch for the larger work was formerly in the Sir J. C. Robinson and Bacon collections.

William James Müller was the son of the curator of Bristol Museum and was apprenticed to J. B. Pyne in 1827.  Although his life was short, he contributed considerably to the development of British watercolor painting and his works are much sought after.

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