Seeing America’s tangled threads in John Singer Sargent’s Street in Venice
in Republics and empires
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Sargent’s Street in Venice (1882) presents a young woman striding through a working-class neighbourhood, framed by male observers and a group of female bead stringers in front of their dwelling. Over the course of the painting’s exhibition history, art critics have interpreted the figures as representations of three commonly held nineteenth-century stereotypes of Italian people: Italian beauty, depicted as the striding Venetian woman; the couple behind her, who represent manual labour; and the two conversing men, dressed in dark coats, alluding to the swarthy and possibly dangerous Italian. While serving as agents of the picturesque, at the same time and in the same painting Sargent’s figures also make evident concerns regarding the immigration of Italians to the United States. The elevation of Italian beauty, on the one hand, and the prejudice levelled against Italian immigrants, on the other, comprised a conflicting discourse that motivated American journalism, social reform, and immigration policy in the late nineteenth century. As Italian immigration was on the rise, there was a vogue for American genre painting depicting scenes of working-class Italians. For the first time, both representations of Italians and Italian immigrants themselves were present in large numbers in the United States. This historical coexistence is illuminated by the discussion of other American paintings of the Venetian poor, and the analysis of literary and sociological treatments of Italian immigrants of the same era.

Republics and empires

Italian and American art in transnational perspective, 1840–1970

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