In an exhibition, which just recently closed, at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, the Royal Trust assembled a stunning array of paintings, etchings, drawings, and related images by the 18th century Venetian artist, Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto – all part of the Queen’s own collection. The exhibition is notable not only for its breadth – over two hundred works – but also for its suitably grandiose setting and for its fascinating exploration of the special interrelationship between this quintessential Italian artist, his English connections, and his theatrical roots.
Displayed beautifully in the baroque rooms of the Queen’s Gallery, situated right on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the exhibit explores not only Canaletto’s panoramic paintings, but also his progress and developing process as an artist and the context and connections for these images of Italy which straddle the cultural transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism.
Giovanni Antonio Canal was born in 1697, the son of painter Bernardo Canal – hence the appellation “Canaeltto” or “little Canal” - and he was raised to follow in his sire’s footsteps. He worked as an apprentice in his father’s atelier and helped execute the many stage designs and set drops for which Canal was commissioned. By 1720 Canaletto had begun to branch out on his own, creating the scenery for one of Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas in Rome and gaining admission to the Venetian Painters Guild. In his period of working for the theatre he met and was influenced by the Ricci brothers, Marco and Sebastiano, who also had careers as theatre artists and painters. Sometime before 1723, he met the English expatriate merchant Joseph Smith, who was living in Venice and who was a discriminating and serious collector of contemporary Italian art. Smith became
Canaletto’s longtime patron, urging the artist to turn his work toward the large, panoramic scenes of his native city which became the artist’s trademark. From 1723-1730 Smith secured Canaletto innumerable commissions, mostly from foreigners on the Grand Tour; Canaletto’s records indicate no fewer than twelve paintings of the Grand Canal in that period. Within a short period of time Canaletto’s images defined the views and vistas of Venice.
His early style was heavily influenced by Neoclassicism, and even as his vision became freer and his brushwork more calligraphic over the years, his canvasses were still known for their orderly composition. In fact, by the 1740s, his paintings and drawings demonstrated a special affinity for the architecture of Palladio. But perhaps it is Canaletto’s use of light and subtle color that best define his style. Those who have visited the places he depicts recognize immediately the special colors and atmospheric touches – the pale rose and turquoise of a Venetian dawn or the lowering ochres of a Roman late afternoon – and his work set the course for future painters such as William Turner.
In addition to his Venetian series, Canaletto painted the Brenta, Padua and neighboring rural areas in the 1740s and in 1746 traveled to England on a commission for the Duke of Richmond, executing many English landscapes and cityscapes, and he remained there until 1755. He died in Venice in 1768, active almost until his passing.
Beginning in the first rooms of the Queen’s gallery, the visitor gets an opportunity to observe Canaletto’s progress from small works on paper- drawings prints, etchings, set sketches – with which he honed his draughtsmanship. Even in these pencil sketches and prints, however, one feels his mastery of lighting and atmosphere. The early drawing of an archway and balcony within the city streets has both a firm sense of compositional balance and a surface energy that combine to make the drawing far more vivid than an architectural rendering. Similarly the late etching of Venice’s Campanile under repair, though it shows more attention to architectural precision and uses more hatched strokes, still conveys a sense of sky and atmosphere that softens the depiction of the building itself.
Also of interest are the drawings of Marco and Sebastiano Ricci of the same period, particularly Ricci’s set and costume renderings, such as the drawing of a commedia dell’arte figure with its economical yet lyrical line defining the robes. The magic and pageantry of the theatre surely influenced Canaletto’s later grand paintings, not only because in painting large scenic drops he learned something technical about scale and drama, but also because Canaletto imbibed from the theatre the concept of staging his scenic paintings. These are not mere observations, but rather mood paintings, captured at so many different times of day and in so many different kinds of light that they each seem to contain their own living stories.
And it is precisely because, despite the frequency with which he painted certain vistas, each seems to have a life of its own. Little details change from painting to painting. The angles of perspective are altered ever so slightly which creates a whole new look. The weather, time of day, and light change. These subtleties are vibrantly apparent when Canaletto’s large canvasses are hung side by side in the gilded setting of the upper Queen’s Galleries.
Sometimes the sky is blue and the water green, the scene almost backlit by a yellow Italian sun, as in his depiction of the Rialto Bridge. Then the artist turns his perspective and views the scene from the south from a greater distance. The day is cloudier; the sun is beginning to set; the canal is busy with gondoliers. In the first the iconic edifice has an imposingly proud look; in the second it fades into the bustle of the quotidian Venetian day.
The Basilica of San Marco figures over and over again in Canaletto’s work in close up and in panorama. Always it is the heart of the city, and the paintings show not only the majestic church and buildings of the piazza but also document the people who stroll through the piazza. Similarly, a view of the Piazza from the basin of San Marco while it also focuses on the human activity in the foreground, makes the architecture a backdrop for these boaters, tourists, townsfolk, merchants who bustle through the busy waters. Taken at close range or in “long-shot” most of Canaletto’s views of San Marco are exteriors though he did execute a number of interior scenes as well. These seem to show the influence of the Dutch school (Rembrandt, Vermeer) in their use of extreme chiaroscuro, and they convey a sense of dark mystery, which is surely part of the overall ambiance of Venice, itself.
Besides the city of Venice itself, there are monumental scenes of the Venetian countryside, the idyllic lands along the Brenta Canal. One such lovely country scene of a Paduan landscape gives the viewer a clear appreciation for Canaletto’s mastery of light and color. Without the waters of the Venetian lagoon to reflect the light, it is the colored stucco of the houses that serves to govern the artist’s palette projecting pinks, ochres, earthier tones, while the lavender of the sky bespeaks an entirely different place.
The same observation can be made for Canaletto’s paintings from Rome (or from England, for that matter- though they are not in this exhibit). His view looking toward the Forum is artfully staged with the ancient ruins of an arch dominating the composition, and the figures dwarfed in comparison to the majesty of the place. The clear, pale azure sky speaks to the warm, sunny climate of Rome, and like the Paduan scene, there is an idyllic sense of calm that contrasts to the bustle of the Venetian scenes.
Later in Canaletto’s career he began to paint capriccios, a genre he may have discovered from his association with the Riccis, among others. The capriccio is an architectural fantasy, that combines buildings , archaeological ruins and other architectural elements in fictional and often fantastical combinations, and frequently adds figures which suggest a narrative element to this landscape form. Joseph Smith secured Canaletto a great many commissions for capriccios, and the artist practiced the genre combining elements from his travels. In one such scene which uses classical ruins as a frame for buildings in the distance and bucolic figures occupying the foreground, Canaletto creates the impression of a pre-Romantic painting in which man and nature, past and present exist in symbiotic serenity.
Capriccio San Marco
In others, especially in the Venetian capriccios where he knows the subject so intimately, he allows his imagination to play not only with the placement of objects but with the overall atmospheric treatment. In the painting of the horses of San Marco, he has placed the famous sculptures prominently in front of the Ducal Palace on pedestals; the dark prancing steeds seem to be guarding the Palace, dwarfing the tiny image of the lion of Venice in the distance. There is an almost ominous energy in the painting that cannot help but arrest the viewer’sattention.
The Canaletto exhibition covers almost forty years in the artist’s mature career from 1720-1768. These are years in which Europe, in an age of burgeoning Enlightenment, was undergoing significant changes as it poised itself to move from an agrarian society to the industrial one of the next century. The world of art was dominated by the writings of art historian Johann von Winckelmann who created the craze for Classical Antiquity. Yet at the same time, revolution, rebellion, foment brewed, and it was in these crosscurrents that some of the century’s greatest geniuses worked – Voltaire, Rousseau, Goethe. In art the tension between the admired Neoclassical and the budding Romanticism ebbed and flowed throughout the century. The baroque and rococo of the Fragonard, Watteau and others gave way to the cool classicism of David and then to the passionate explosion of painters like Delacroix.
Navigating these currents, Giovanni Antonio Canal/Canaletto absorbed the trends and applied them to what he knew best. He was a painter of place, but not place as a dull vacuous entity, but rather as a vibrant environment. Place that carried with it a sense of belonging as well as longing, a familiarity and a magic. As Italy became the number one destination on then obligatory Grand Tour for cultured 18th century travelers, Venice, thanks to the work of Canaletto, took on a special iconic stature.
While Canaletto knew the Queen of the Adriatic from birth, while he was on intimate terms with her secrets and beauties, he also knew how to turn those realities into something far more theatrical. In many ways the artist who began his career designing stage scenery leaned how to apply the lessons of stagecraft to the art of fine painting. And it was this sense of drama and latent storytelling that transformed his canvasses from mere scenic landscape or genre painting into works of epic consequence.