At the age of 40, Renoir finally had the motivation and means to travel abroad. On his first trip, he went to Algeria, a longtime colony of France. During the month he spent there in the spring of
1881, he made some of the most remarkable landscapes of his career, developing innovative pictorial techniques to depict the North African locales. Renoir notably avoided the oft-represented sites
that had by then been established as the area's central picturesque motifs. In Italy in the following year, however, he sought out famous sites, such as the Piazza San Marco in Venice, representing
them in a vivid and coloristic style that would enrage critics when the works were exhibited in the Impressionist exhibition of 1882.
Gondola, Venice, is the closest to a genre scene of any picture Renoir painted in Venice. A gondolier in striped shirt has transported two ladies across the lagoon, foreign tourists as we can tell from the French style of hat one of them wears. They are about to touch down at what is probably the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, ready to explore the monumental sixteenth-century church by Palladio that dominates it. An Italian girl sits on the water's edge, her head turned away from the approaching visitors in the direction of the artist who has positioned himself a few steps higher up to better survey the scene. Her short hair suggests that she is the same model Renoir also drew in pencil and sketched in oils at about this time. This conjunction of a gondolier and female Italian model recalls one of the few anecdotes Renoir told about his time in the city. He later reported to his friend Charles Deudon that while he wanted to paint figures in Venice, he had trouble finding models. He saw one girl "beautiful as a Madonna. My gondolier tells me he knows her, I hug him for joy." Once she posed, however, Renoir was unhappy with the self-conscious result, concluding that "to get someone to pose, you have to be very good friends and above all speak the language."
This painting recalls the vivid scenes of gondolas plying the Grand Canal that resulted from Manet's 1874 visit to Venice. The interest in incorporating specifically Venetian figures recalls the paintings of Venetian work and leisure by John Singer Sargent, who had visited a year before Renoir, in 1880, and would return the following year. What is specific to Renoir, however, is the conjunction of large-scale figures in the foreground, including the uniquely Venetian shape of the gondola itself, and a panoramic view of the city as seen across the waters.