MYSTIC — Artist Kevin Osborne sat on a small, wooden bench inside the Mystic Seaport Museum one morning last week, mesmerized by the enormous 1884 oil painting on the wall before him.
The painting, "Water Carriers, Venice," by the American portrait painter Frank Duveneck, is on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of "Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic Murano," the rare and unusual exhibit on view through Feb. 27 in the seaport's Collins Gallery inside the Thompson Exhibition Building.
Osborne — who has worked in watercolor and ink wash for more than 35 years — was sitting next to his friend, Judith Stewart, staring at the painting in awe. The two had traveled from Farmington, Conn., to see the exhibit, which has been described by many critics as a once-in-a-lifetime arrangement of art and artifacts.
"It's wonderful," said Osborne as he stood and walked toward a small, 1882 Sargent self-portrait in pen, ink and wash on paper, "and it's so varied.
"I've been a fan of Sargent all my life," he added, "but I had never seen this ink wash reproduction. ... It adds a punctuation point to the exhibit."
"There are so many artists," added Stewart. "There's not only Sargent and Whistler but there's the whole Venice thing, too."
The exhibit — the first-ever comprehensive examination of American artmaking, tourism and art collecting in Venice — brings together more than 140 artworks, and features — in addition to rare etchings by Whistler and major oil paintings by Sargent — works by Maxfield Parrish, Robert Frederick Blum, William Merritt Chase, Charles Caryl Coleman, Louise Cox, Ellen Day Hale, Thomas Moran, Maurice Prendergast and Julius LeBlanc Stewart.
Many of the objects on exhibit are from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, others are on loan from private collections and from more than 45 prestigious museums — such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The exhibit displays paintings and prints along with rarely seen Venetian glass mosaic portraits and glass cups, vases and urns by the leading glassmakers of Murano, including members of the Seguso and Barovier families. Several artworks were conserved by the Smithsonian specifically for inclusion in the exhibition, including an ornate Byzantine revival gold and glass mosaic necklace.
There are also a number of pieces from local artists on display, including pieces by renowned Mystic glassblower Jeffrey P’An — who spent time on the island of Murano studying glassblowing — and a trade bead necklace and beaded top hat, created by Indigenous artists, on loan from Exeter's Tomaquag Museum.
A piece from Yolanda Smith of the Seaconke/Wampanoag Tribe is on display, as is another from Deborah Czeresko, who won Season 1 of "Blown Away" on Netflix.
Carly Callahan, the executive director of Westerly's United Theatre, called the exhibit "a visual feast."
"It took me on an utterly transformative journey that sparked my imagination," she said in an email.
"It's hard to choose what spoke to me the most, but I spent many moments contemplating Sargent's' 'Leaving Church,'" Callahan added. "It pushed against the sometimes cloying depiction of women in picturesque postures and instead captured them in an unguarded, everyday moment, and showed us their complexity, beauty, confidence and humanity."
The exhibit, said Dean Thomas Hantzopoulos, a seaport museum educator and interpreter, brings the Venetian glass revival of the late 19th century to life, and shows the "artistic experimentation" the city inspired for visiting artists.
It is said that the Venetian island of Murano, a leading center of glassmaking since the middle ages, can attribute today’s thriving industry to a burst in production between 1860 and 1915, when Murano glassmakers began specializing in delicate and complex hand-blown vessels, which dazzled "the world with brilliant colors and virtuoso sculptural flourishes," according to the program from the exhibit.
The glass revival coincided with a surge in Venice’s popularity as a destination for tourists, leading to frequent depictions of Italian glassmakers and glass objects by artists from abroad.
"American painters and their patrons visited the glass furnaces, and many collected ornate goblets and vases decorated with flowers, dragons, and sea creatures," according to the program.
The exhibition also includes examples of lacemaking, mosaics and jewelry, which all went through a sort of renaissance in Venice at the same time as glassmaking.
Hantzopoulos, who is also a numismatist, said that, as a stamp collector, he was especially fascinated by a small, mosaic piece on display that had been made as a souvenir for the World's Columbian Exposition that was held in Chicago in 1893.
Described as "marvel of miniature portraiture," Luigi Moretti's glass cane slice depicting Christopher Columbus is less than an inch wide and was a "trinket" given to visitors who attended the exposition.
The examples of contemporary lacework show the "continued impact of Venetian-imported craft today along with the associated tools for making such work" alongside lace samples and tools on loan the University of Rhode Island's Historic Textile & Costume Collection. The university has loaned examples of high-quality Venetian needle lace, bobbin lace from the 17th century, and tools for making both kinds of lace for the exhibit.
Other local pieces on loan include an enormous gondola on loan from La Gondola Providence Inc., which is on display in the lobby near a colorful, hand-blown glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly.
“Venice has long captivated American artists and collectors who have been inspired by the creative talents of Venetians in glassmaking and other disciplines,” Peter Armstrong, the museum's president, said in a statement released shortly before the exhibit arrived in Mystic.
Fans of HBO's "Gilded Age" will recognize many of the pieces, said Kevin O'Leary, the seaport's vice president for business development and marketing.
Sophia Matsas, the museum's director of marketing and communications, credited Curator Christina Connett Brophy for expanding the exhibition specifically for Mystic, which had its own heyday during the period covered by the collection.
"It's a gorgeous exhibition," she said, "and there's something for everyone."
Matsas said there is one more "Murano Morning," a lecture series that accompanies the run of the exhibit, on the schedule. On Feb. 16, "Coffee with Curators" will feature Diana Greenwold, the Lunder curator of American art at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art.
On Feb. 23, museum members can attend a "Member Evening" after the museum closes to the public, which will offer refreshments and the opportunity to chat with staff members who will share their insights and answer questions.
The exhibition, which was organized by Crawford Alexander Mann III, former curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and current chief curator at Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia, was actually a bonus exhibition for the seaport museum, said Matsas.
"It was supposed to go to Venice," she said. "But COVID changed all that."
For more information about "Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano," visit mysticseaport.org/.
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