The islands of Venice were a paradise for consumers as well as artists. American collectors spent lavishly on fine glass from Murano and lacework from Burano. In the 1870s and 1880s, the city’s luxury textile industry experienced a revival, spurred by the demand from well-heeled travelers and resident foreign aristocrats. Luigi Bevilacqua revitalized traditional weaving methods, and Lorenzo Rubelli began reproducing antique fabrics including velvets, lampas, and brocades, which wealthy Americans typically used for wallcovering.
Brocart de Venise by Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851–1938) depicts two women dreamily listening to a harpsichord in front of a golden brocade-covered wall. While the musical theme recalls the work of seventeenth-century Dutch artists, the title of the painting equates the picture with the Venetian fabric. Dewing impressed his oil-on-panel painting with a delicate woven pattern, imitating the texture of the cloth. The furniture, clothing, and skin shimmer where they catch the light, as if the whole painting were threaded with gold. The attenuated lines of the women’s bodies resemble the hypnotic foliate design of the brocade, while the player’s bodice echoes the arabesque motif behind her. Such similarities absorb the women into their background and emphasize their decorative surface qualities rather than their intellectual or psychological depth. By “flattening” women into the decorative backdrop, rather than rendering them as fully realized subjects, Dewing reaffirmed their traditional status as beautiful and passive beings, at a time when the rise of the women’s movement was increasingly disrupting gender norms. The painting’s treatment of women evokes the plight of the heroine of feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), who feels trapped within a patterned wallcovering as a metaphor for women’s imprisonment by patriarchal culture.
Thomas Wilmer Dewing (American, 1851–1938), Brocart de Venise (Venetian Brocade), c. 1904–5. Oil on panel, 19 1/2 x 25 1/2 in. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1906.