A gallery in the first Venice Biennale exhibition in 1895
The first Venice Biennale exhibition in 1895 ©

Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia – Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee

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. 

Here is Whistler's award-winning painting:

An oil painting of a girl in white by Whistler
Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864, James Abbott McNeill Whistler ©

Tate. Available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence


Following the success of the previous year, the Pre-Raphaelites continued to dominate the British presence at the Venice Biennale in 1897. 

Works by 55 British artists were shown and the International Committee of Patronage once again included Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Sir John Everett Millais (who died 1896, just before the 1897 Biennale), as well as two new additions: the painters Hubert von Herkomer and William Quiller Orchardson.

Among the artists on view were the artist and book illustrator Walter Crane, the Anglo-Welsh artist-craftsman Frank Brangwyn and the notable sculptor and member of the New Sculpture movement George Frampton.


Even more British artists were shown in this year: 76 in total, more than three times the number in 1895. An Irish painter John Lavery, who presented his work at the Biennale, was also chosen to sit on the Jury that judged the works on display.

Whilst no prizes were awarded this year, works by artists John Lavery and George Smith were purchased for the International Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna) in Venice.

One of the focuses of the 1899 exhibition was Scottish decorative art, and so it featured Scottish illustrator Jessie Marion King, the architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, whose style greatly influenced Art Nouveau.

Two artist newcomers, Sir Edward John Poynter and Walter Crane, joined the International Committee of Patronage, which included some familiar faces (Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Hubert von Herkomer and William Quiller Orchardson). 

Further information

You can read Britain at the Venice Biennale 1895-1995. Published by the British Council, 1995. Edited by Sophie Bowness and Clive Phillpot. 

If you would like a list of British artists who took part in the Venice Biennale, please contact us.