Though primarily a solitary artist, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer found commonality with the artists, writers, and musicians of the Symbolist movement, which formed to provide an intellectual alternative to the purely visual painting of the Impressionists. The Symbolists chose subject matter which would suggest complex emotional and spiritual ideas rather than compositions that could be immediately understood and Lévy-Dhurmer was particularly interested in the emotional and lyrical possibilities of landscape and atmosphere. To this end, pastel provided the perfect medium for the artist, lending his compositions an ethereal, velvety texture and soft tonal contrasts which heighten their dream-like qualities.
After a trip to Venice in 1895 which would prove influential in the direction of his art, Lévy-Dhurmer returned to Paris and had his first one-man show at Galerie Georges Petit in 1896. It was during this same period that Lévy-Dhurmer first met the Belgian Symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach who would help to popularize the artist's work both in France and Belgium. Lévy-Dhurmer’s masterful portrait of Rodenbach, now in the Musée d’Orsay, which was also executed in pastel in 1895 and references Rodenbach’s best known work, Bruges-la-Morte, of 1892, depicts the author dissolving into the canals of the Venice of the North. Much like Lévy-Dhurmer did in his own work, Rodenbach sought to evoke the town of Bruges as a living entity, capable of expressing the moods of the spirit. These same ideas can be found in the work of Rodenbach’s dear friend Fernand Khnopff, who illustrated the frontispiece for the first edition of Bruges-la-Morte. In 1930, Lévy-Dhurmer would produce a group of 18 pastels to illustrate a later edition of the book, which were reproduced for print in color lithograph.
Well-versed in Rodenbach’s Symbolist ideas, Lévy-Dhurmer has similarly captured the mood of a late evening in Venice in the present work, contrasting a symphony of the blue and silver tones of moonlight playing across the water and the gondolas with the dazzling, brilliant yellow and orange tones of glowing orbs of man-made light. In some areas, it is not clear what is itself a light source, and what is reflection, and these glowing orbs seem to cluster together above the empty gondolas almost like fireflies. The resulting composition is less an exact depiction than an evocation of the mood of the emptying city illuminated by moonlight. Much like Rodenbach, who in his own writing compared reflections in the canals in Bruges to memories and dreams, Lévy-Dhurmer has also created a dream-like depiction of Venice with all the hallmarks of the city slightly skewed by the haze of memory. Neither the compression of the space of the gondolas nor the orbs of light are spatially logical, but the overarching whole of the composition creates a shimmering and fantastical scene which evokes the emotion and the magic of La Serenissima. The present work shares clear parallels with the work of Whistler, Le Sidaner and Monet, all of whom were captivated by the expressive potential of the city.