Félix Ziem, a bit lesser known Pre-Impressionist and Orientalist, was born on 26 February 1821 in Beaune, on France’s Côte-d’Or. He was the son of a Croatian father and bourguignonne mother who recognised their son’s early artistic prowess and ensured he was enrolled in l’École d’Architecture et des Beaux-Arts in Dijon.
At the fresh age of twenty he ventured south to Nice, where he settled and began to receive commissions from cliques of the local bourgeoisie. From 1842 onwards he began travelling in Italy, spending time exploring Rome before discovering Venice, which would become like a second home to the artist. There he preferred to watch the docks and palazzos from his own boat, which served as both studio and living space, and began painting some of the stunning, watery cityscapes that continue to make his name stand out.
Though he was far from finished with voyage-taking. After trips to Greece, Constantinople and Russia around 1844, he continued on to Belgium, Holland, England, Egypt, Hungary, Turkey and Algeria.
He also made frequent stops at Barbizon, and was thus well acquainted with the famous school of landscape painters situated there. As he aged, he preferred to split his time between his four homes in Venice, Martigues, Nice and Paris, owed to the several thousands of public-pleasing canvases painted over the course of his career.
Esteemed during his own time as a history painter, watercolourist, draughtsman, portraitist, genre painter, creator of animated landscapes, seascapes, architectural studies and still-lifes, he was also able to financially assist struggling young artists and to found several charities, including an asylum for the blind.
Blessed with something of a rare contemporary success, he was able to pair the life of the grand adventurer with that of a regular Parisian artist, and exposed at the Salon regularly after 1849. Durand-Ruel became one of the first to represent him, and after winning bronze, silver and gold medals for his salon submissions, was named a commander of the Légion d’honneur in 1908.
Upon his death, Ziem left a sizeable collection of his studies and drawings to the city of Paris, which is now conserved at the Musée du Petit Palais. It was there another well-known painter, Gustave Moreau, was better able to perceive and learn from Ziem’s rigorous technique, lively palette and uncommon talent.
Though most cherished of all remains Ziem’s treatment of Venice, that fabled, stimulating city able to best showcase such talent. After Gaurdi and Canaletto, it is Ziem’s renderings of canals crammed with trading boats and gondolas that are most sought after. He stirred up simultaneously stunning and sentimental visions of the City of the Doges’ most famous sites, and introduced a gorgeously systematic manner of capturing changeable dances of light according to the hour and season.
Source: Pera Museum, Istanbul, Félix Ziem: Wanderer on the Sea of Light, Exhibition Catalogue, 2016