Of gondola summers and seagulls
By Rick Olivares
“I remember my first painting, I was five or six years old. Venice is a place that inspires you to paint — the houses, the streets, the atmosphere, the light. This has been my job for the last 25 years to paint.”
His paintings aren’t your typical Venetian fare. If you travel around Venice, you will find street painters almost everywhere. From professional to novice artists all depict the scenery that is closely identified with this city that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site — the gondolas, the basilicas, the houses along the river, and the various bridges that connect all the 180 islands that comprise this most unique city.
Walter Berton has been painting about his native Venice for the past 25 years. You’ll find him in the same spot just outside the Chiesa di San Vidal where he has a small booth for his paintings that provide a glimpse — a humorous one — of life in this city.
His chief subject is the gondoleri — the driver of the world renowned gondolas — and that other famous denizen of the capital of the Veneto region — the seagull. Yes, the seagull.
His gondoleris are based on two real people — his friends Manolo and Vittorio who have a gondola service nearby. Through Berton’s oil and water colors, they interact in a most humorous way. In one painting, it is a seagull tugging a large boat made of paper with a gondoleri as the passenger. Another shows Vittorio whistling with the seagulls picking up the notes as if they were food. Still another shows a seagull playfully trying to push off Vittorio from the river banks as he tries to help a couple (that is actually Walter and his wife) to shore.
You get the gist.
There’s a Norman Rockwell-esque feel to his work — slice of life with a humorous bent. That is how the famous 20th century American painter made a name for himself by depicting everyday life of a particular era of American life.
Berton claims the Rockwell approach is more incidental than deliberate. “The works of (French impressionistic painter) Monet and (Vincent) Van Gogh move me. I cannot find the proper words in English so I will just say I like them.”
His gondoleri series (numbering a couple of dozen now) were inspired by watching Vittorio take a nap one hot afternoon. “Vittorio was sleeping on a chair with his legs stretched out,” recounts Berton. “This seagull landed close to him then slowly began to approach him. Then it started to pull at the laces of his shoes. Maybe it was thinking it was a worm. Maybe it was something for a nest. Whatever it is I found it funny.”
And so began the series of paintings that has become popular with locals as well as frequent tourists.
“I like color, life, people when they smile,” added the painter. “I hope through my work people can see that.”
Berton hopes to publish a book featuring his works within the next two years. “I hope to paint about 35 more pictures before I can publish a book.”
Berton tries to paint everyday. “It is easy to find inspiration here in Venice,” he claims. “Everyday I meet different kinds of people and from different countries. I feel good when they buy my work. That inspires me more.”
“And oh, yes. The seagulls too.”