The Light of Venice

This month’s ArtSmart Roundtable is about light, which got me thinking about how light has such a different quality in different places. Where I live, in the middle of a big desert-like valley in California, the light is bright. The sun shines a lot; in fact, in our long summers, there is rarely a cloud in the sky. Sometimes, when I see clouds, I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s weird.” All this piercing sunlight means less-than-ideal photography, lots of sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats, and wishing for relief by the time July arrives. It also means land bursting with fruit, vegetables, and flavorful wine grapes. We don’t get that lovely romantic light that you see in other places, but the constant sun means we rarely have to think about the weather or the possible inconvenience of rain.

florence blue hour

The “Blue Hour” at dusk in Florence, Italy

Yes, light helps define a place, and I was reminded of that on my last trip to Italy. The light in Florence was so beautiful and SO different from the light at home in Sacramento. Here the light had color. It changed throughout the day and sometimes showed unpredictability, transforming during the evening hours in the most beautiful ways.

florence eve

Warm evening light pours in from behind the hills that surround Florence

Perhaps nowhere else has light been so appreciated as in Venice. While some people criticize Venice for being too crowded and expensive, I continue to appreciate it for its history and long-standing status as one of the world’s unique and beautiful cities.

The way that light plays a role in this city’s beauty has not gone unnoticed by artists through the centuries. Perhaps seeing images of Venice will give you a fresh perspective of the city’s unique aesthetic, or perhaps these interpretations of Venice will inspire you to consider the importance of light in cityscapes when you travel.

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

One of Canaletto’s many paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice

One artist who considered the importance of light in Venice was Canaletto, a Venetian painter of the 18th century. His images provide a wonderful peek into life in Venice during that era–the clothing, boats, and daily activities of the people. Notice that the city and its buildings look the same as they do today.

Because of Venice’s unique position on water, light plays off the water and even reflects onto the colors of the buildings. Canaletto’s images above and below show this play of light, both in the reflection of light off the surface of the water and the way light shines on the buildings.

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

In the early part of the 19th century, the British landscape painter J. M. W. Turner also captured the light of Venice in his many paintings of this city. In the image below, we see the light coming in from the side, creating strong shadows in the foreground and stunning reflections of the architecture in the water.

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, Turner, 1834, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The following black -and-white study of the Grand Canal really shows the importance of light in Turner’s work. The strong use of white in the water and on the sides of buildings clearly represents light.

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

A study of the Grand Canal by Turner

Not long after Turner, the Impressionists also spent time working in Venice and using their new painting techniques to interpret light. One of the most interesting of these images is “Blue Venice” by Eduoard Manet. He not only showed light reflecting in the water but also included the colors of the objects, like the striped poles and gondola, reflected in the water.

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

Blue Venice, Manet, 1875, at the Shelburne Museum, Vermont

A typical impressionist interpretation of light and color is Prendergast‘s painting of a busy day on the Grand Canal.

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

Grand Canal, Maurice Prendergast, 1899, at the Williams College Museum of Art, Massachusetts

Another interesting interpretation of the light in Venice can be seen in some of Monet‘s late works. Like his famous haystack series, Monet painted views of Venice at different times of day, each one displaying different light and colors. While Monet certainly exaggerated the color and light in these images, the way the colors of the buildings and water reflect light is dazzling.

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

Grand Canal, Monet, 1908, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

American impressionist John Singer Sargent also visited Venice and examined the role of light there. The striking reflections in the water actually seem to be the central figure in this painting:

Light in Venice | This Is My Happiness

Ponte San Giuseppe di Castello, Sargent, 1904, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

What are some places that have especially beautiful light? Do you have a favorite artist that beautifully interpreted light?

(Images of the paintings are from Wikiart.)

For more posts about light, please check out the other fantastic ArtSmart writers:

A Celebration of Light: Ghent in 2015 from No Onions Extra Pickles

Painting with Light: Vermeer’s Interior Scenes from Daydream Tourist

Learning to See the Light in Vicenza Italy from Wanderfull Traveler

Vija Celmins Photorealistic Double Reality from Art Weekenders


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  • Inspired post, Jenna. Your own photos are terrific and I love the selection of paintings you chose. I had Canaletto prints on my walls for years but I’m loving the Monet and Sargent you’ve shown here. Venice is really too wonderful.
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  • Charu says:

    I absolutely love this post, and these are some of my favorite artists! There is a poem by Derek Walcott with the lines:

    “On its limned window ledge
    A beer can’s gilded rim gleams like
    evening along a Canaletto lake”

    (from his poem, A Map of Europe)
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  • Pal says:

    A beautiful post Jenna, a great way of linking the past to the present and your current life. A beautiful selection of paintings too, I almost have to say that Venice looks better on paintings than on photos :-). Some of the paintings I’ve never seen before, in fact didn’t even know that Manet painted in Venice. Keep saying it, but it’s really about time for me to go back to Venice, it’s been ages.
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  • Cindy says:

    A lovely post! And just what I needed in the midst of a hectic day.

    Thanks, Jenna…

  • Lydian says:

    What a great post and interpretation of this month ArtSmart theme! I love it how you connected the light theme with the arts! It makes me remember the skies we saw while sailing along the Swedish coast last year, every night a different array of spectacular colours!
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    • Jenna says:

      Ooh, I love the image of the sky being a different color every night. So different from the same old light here in my part of California

  • Polly says:

    Yes! Love your examples – Canaletto is one of my favorites as well. The light in Venice is such a huge part of its appeal. As an art student doing a summer semester abroad, I appreciated that light both for its aesthetic qualities, and the fact I ended up with the best tan of my life!
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  • You couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate city to feature in this post my friend and the artwork herein is exquisite!! Although I am fan of Manet, I have never seen “Blue Venice” until now! Stunning! Nor have I seen Monet’s “Grand Canal,” another new favorite, but Sargent’s work I absolutely love and devour as much as I can! Brilliant post my friend, pun intended! 😉
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    • Jenna says:

      Thank you for the kind words! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I agree…Sargent is probably my favorite of these.

  • Alexandra says:

    OK, I couldn’t figure out what to post for the #artsmart roundtable about LIGHT, and the only idea that came to mind to me was… the light in venice.
    You’re absolutely right that this is the place in which light is most relevant to painting and to our experience.
    (the only other idea actually was Caravaggio, but i’ve already written about him)
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    • Jenna says:

      Caravaggio was my other thought, too, but I also had already written about him. I guess we think alike 🙂

  • Hana says:

    What an amazing post! I never thought someone could put in words the feeling I got when I was visiting Venice. I did two italy private tours there, after I found this website: and got to do one at night and one in the early morning. In both of them it appeared to me that the whole city was shining and I didn’t know how to explain it. I specially love the Turner painting you chose for the post. Beautiful!
    Thank you darling. Keep posting!

  • Ishita says:

    Hello Jenna! I am finally on thisismyhappiness 🙂 Yay! I absolutely love this post… The art in Italy, I am awed ..Wonderful post. Keep writing. (

  • Vesna says:

    Dear Jenna, great blog post. When you are traveling to Venice, prolong your jouney and have a coffee in Slovenia (Nova Gorica) which is only 2 hours away from Venice. It would be a pleasure to meet you. Keep on traveling and exploring, Vesna

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