The strikingly impressionist style of the painting sets it apart from Manet’s earlier, realist works – likely the influence of the summer he had just spent with Claude Monet, who is considered to be one of the founders of impressionism.
The oil-on-canvas composition was painted during Manet’s trip to Venice, in the autumn of 1875. Despite travelling with his wife and the fellow painter James Tissot, Manet struggled to settle in the city.
This mood is, perhaps, reflected in the broken brush-strokes which comprise the surface of the canal, engendering a sense of agitation and unrest.
Manet’s impressionist period was heralded by the summer he spent painting alongside Claude Monet, on the banks of the Seine.
Before he had met the younger painter, Manet is said to have demanded: “Who is this Monet whose name sounds just like mine and who is taking advantage of my renown?” Despite this first impression, Manet grew to respect Monet – famously dubbing him the "Raphael of water".
During the summer of 1875, Manet painted a canvas very similar in style to his Grand Canal of Venice. This painting, titled The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil, depicts Monet’s wife and son bathed in natural light and seated on a lawn.
The work’s broad brush-strokes capture the dynamism of this outdoor scene. Interestingly, whilst Manet painted his family, Monet painted him doing so in turn – unfortunately this picture is lost.
Moss Rose in a Vase, 1882, is another of Manet’s impressionist works, and again features the vibrant, sketch-like style which the artist cultivated during this period. In this painting, Manet applies the impressionistic vibrancy he employed earlier in Venice to a more humble, still-life subject.
Manet was not the only painter to find inspiration among the bustling canals of Venice. In 1908, Monet painted Le Grand Canal whilst visiting a friend in the city.
Monet was prolific during this time, producing a grand total of 37 Venetian scenes, despite earlier describing the setting as “too beautiful to paint”.
Le Grand Canal employs Monet’s own distinctive version of impressionism, utilising a subdued blue palate and agitated brush-strokes. Monet's focus was to capture the play of light on the surface of the canal, rather than to focus on any particular landmarks. William Turner also captured the Grand Canal centuries earlier.
Paul Signac also painted the Grand Canal of Venice – a few years before Monet in 1905. Signac’s Grand Canal (Venice) makes use of pointillism; a branch of impressionism which involves creating images from myriad tiny dots. Its mosaic-like points create a keen sense of rippling motion.
The Grand Canal of Venice perfectly exemplifies Manet’s contribution to the impressionist movement, which grew towards the end of the nineteenth century, as well as vividly depicting a city whose unique charm continues to draw artists today.