It all began in 1893 when the major of the Venetian City Council decided to set up a biennial exhibition in Venice to showcase the best Italian art.
In 1894, the City Council agreed to be more ambitious by expanding the exhibition to invite both Italian and international artists to take part, with the works selected by a jury. So in 1895 the first ‘International Art Exhibition’ of the Venice Biennale took place. It was extremely popular and over 200,000 visitors came to Venice, eager to see the latest artworks on display.
For the very first Venice Biennale, 21 British artists were invited to exhibit in the English room in the Central Pavilion (as the British Pavilion hadn’t yet been created).
Alongside fellow Italian art enthusiasts, Antonio Fradeletto (economist, scholar and Secretary General of the Biennale) was keen to see paintings by leading British artists, and so invited a selection of artists from the radical Pre-Raphaelite art group to take part.
The Italian press had written many stories about the Pre-Raphaelites and so they had become very popular, especially in comparison to their contemporaries in Europe. Established in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, Sir John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites were a highly influential anti-establishment circle of English painters, poets and critics. They rebelled against the art world and popular painting styles of the mid-nineteenth century and strived to create work that explored religion, literature, poetry and modern social problems.
So, who chose the British artists? An International Committee of Patronage was created and included well-known painters John Everett Millais, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Sir Frederic Leighton. While selectors showed their own paintings, works by other famous Pre-Raphaelite artists were also exhibited.
A painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler was also shown, who although born in the USA, lived in the UK for most of his life. Whistler's Symphony in White, No.2: The Little White Girl won a major Venice Biennale prize, the Premio Internazionale del Comune di Murano (a 2,500 lire prize given to a work previously shown outside of Italy), and is now often on view at Tate Britain in London as part of the Tate’s collection.
An impressive 224,000 visitors attended the first Venice Biennale exhibition and it was considered a great success by the public and press.