As winter looms closer and closer, a chill lurking in the air — escaping to Richard Parkes Bonington‘s Venice Grand Canal, Sunset with its sun-drenched buildings feels like a vacation… at least for the mind. Since this painting doesn’t have much in the way of characters, at least not characters that could also be considered “actors” in the dramatic sense, it seems to rely primarily on a seamless transition from foreground to background in order to convey its wistful sense of beauty.
I say wistful because the horizon which consists of buildings (almost foggy with light) appears out of visual reach, yet as these “foggy” buildings occupy the painting’s vanishing point that is where the eye is drawn. Perhaps when we first look at the painting the eye is drawn to the sun drenched buildings, partly because they seem almost to be facing the viewer (as if we were on a boat oriented towards them). After the eye absorbs the general detail of the sun drenched buildings, our inclination is a cursory glance towards the shadowed portion on the right side of the painting, but ultimately we follow the path of the buildings to the vanishing point.
The water is calm and the clouds present in the sky seem as to be floating almost as lazily and gently as the boats in the water. The stillness in the painting may also be heightened by the artist’s decision to include the floating dock (the one nearest the viewer) as a symbol of something that is fixed/immobile, yet still floating. This “floating dock” becomes a reference point and visual cue for all other floating objects. Consider for a moment what the painting would feel like if the floating dock were absent. Though the waves are virtually still, the boat traffic might take on a more “active” appearance, of boats with a destination, as opposed to boats just “enjoying the ride.”
I enjoy this painting as something that’s beautiful, yet also something that isn’t trying too hard. It’s an image that reminds us to perhaps pause and look around — to enjoy what’s around us and not necessarily be in a rush to get to tomorrow.