A sculptor before the war, William Congdon achieves extraordinary tactile effects in painting. Using tools instead of a brush, Congdon works his surface - one is tempted to say - like a farm. Wet, malleable pigment is troweled out and tamped down in large patches; dry crusts are plowed into furrows, the upturned paint deposited along­ side in little crumbly heaps; here and there the shallow ditches flow with rivulets of liquid color; metallic powder settles dust-like over large areas.
Within these luxuriant and crustaceous tangles of paint, Congdon portrays exotic and mysterious visions of Mexico, Venice, New York City. Delicacy of form is sacrificed to direct and energetic expression. Representational elements are rough and crude abstractions, but their murky surfaces are alive wth the glint of gold, silver, and pure color.

Venice, No. 5, presents one of the artist's favorite subjects - the Piazza San Marco. Like the Impressionists before him, Congdon has been strongly attracted to the fabulous port. He presents, however, not a sophisticated atmospheric illusion of bright sun flickering on confectionary architecture and brilliant waters, but a primitive transcription of medieval opulence. To represent the sun and its light, Congdon returns to ancient metaphor - he uses gold paint. In shadows, where the Impressionists sought color, Congdon prefers the mystery of black.

The sun is a monstrous disk which bleeds its gold into dark facades; chaotic patches of gray, green, white and gold meet in conflict in the square and the sky. Empty and enormous, the square recedes in exaggerated perspective. Surface scoring follows no regular or calligraphic rhythm, but careens wildly in free scribbles and irresponsible meanders. Whether consciously or not, in Venice, No. 5 Congdon abandons decorative unity for a willful and spectacular expression of personal energy.

Virginia Harriman
Adapted from Bulletin of DIA 30, no. 3 and 4 (1950-1951): 88-89, (ill.).
Artist William Congdon, American, 1912 - 1998
  • Venice, No. 5
Date 1950
Medium Oil on panel
Dimensions Overall: 46 1/2 × 19 1/2 inches (118.1 × 49.5 cm)
Framed: 48 1/8 × 21 1/4 × 1 5/8 inches (122.2 × 54 × 4.1 cm)
Credit Line Gift of John S. Newberry
Accession Number 51.57
Department Contemporary Art after 1950
Not On View
Inscriptions Dated: 1950
1951-present, gift to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
Bulletin of DIA 30, no. 3 and 4 (1950-1951): 88-89, (ill.).

Selz, Peter, Licht, Fred and Balzarotti, Rodolfo. William Congdon. Milan, 1992, pl. 16.