Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals

The exhibition finished at the National Gallery, London, on 16 January 2011. It runs at the National Gallery, Washington, from 20 February to 30 May 2011.

Reviewed by David R. Marshall

Fig. 1 Canaletto 'The Torre di Malghera' about 1756

Canaletto is synonymous with Venetian view painting, and when you enter this exhibition you can see why: it looks like room after room of Canalettos. But gradually this impression resolves itself into several different painters and manners. Some have lamented the lack of the chronological organisation that informs most recent Canaletto and Bellotto exhibitions, but that would miss the point: this is an exhibition about comparisons, and the curator, Charles Beddington, has set up many interesting ones. However, when I saw it, on a Sunday morning near the end of its run, the crowds made it hard to see many of them: you were forced to put your nose close up to one work just to see anything at all, when what you needed to do was to stand back and compare adjacent works. Perhaps the best came last, in the last of two rooms devoted to Canaletto and Guardi. On either side of a doorway were paintings of the Torre di Malghera in the lagoon painted by Canaletto, Bellotto, and Guardi (nos. 30, 48, 57) (Figs 1-3). Both the Canaletto and the Bellotto are based on Canaletto’s etching; the Guardi is independently conceived. This drives you towards the Canaletto-Bellotto comparison, and the immediate impression is that Bellotto is so much better. This is now the common critical point of view, especially as Bellotto has been gradually eating into Canaletto’s oeuvre with reattributions (above all at the National Gallery of Victoria, where two iffy Canalettos have been transformed into two solid Bellottos). Bellotto, of course, was Canaletto’s nephew, and started in his workshop, as did his almost unknown younger brother Pietro Bellotti (with an ‘i’). This exhibition gives the opportunity to see early works by both painters. One would hardly take the Pietro Bellotti to be a work produced in 1743–44, at the very moment that Bernardo Bellotto was emerging from Canaletto’s studio; he seems to have learned so little from his teacher that one might otherwise have assigned the work to some later pasticheur (Fig. 4). Bernardo learned much more, and in a work presented here as a teenage work in Canaletto’s workshop (no. 42) (Fig. 5), which only just slips out from under the old Punch cartoon of a dealer holding up to a client a drawing of a stick figure with the caption ‘It’s a very early Rembrandt, Sir’. Bellotto still had a long way to go at this point, when his technique was heavy-handed in its literalness, as with his contributions to the third room, where the viewer is confronted with a row of four unpleasant paintings in vertical format by Bellotto and Canaletto. This is a format that seems never to work for Venetian view painters (though Panini could candle it well in his capricci), and the laboriousness of Bellotto just coming to artistic adulthood is rather awful (no. 43) (Fig. 6). Nearby is a work from a comparable phase of Canaletto’s career (no. 8), one of his first works for Consul Smith, also in vertical format, which shows the early painterly Canaletto just before he moved on to a more graphic style. Not for nothing have critics from Ruskin onwards preferred works like the slightly later Stonemason’s Yard (no. 11), brought downstairs for the exhibition, which still retains this painterliness and impasto. Bellotto, of course, came on the scene later than this, and so had no history of early painterliness as Canaletto did. Something in these different histories underlies the differences between the two artists versions of the Torre di Malghera (Figs 1, 2) Bellotto, shortly afterwards, went to work for various Northern courts, with all the time in the world to produce a few big, and completely original paintings of new subjects, while Canaletto had to churn out Venetian and English views to make ends meet. But this was still to come, and the fascination of Bellotto’s Torre di Malghera cannot be attributed to circumstances, as it was painted while still in Italy. Rather, it seems that, with his ‘laborious’ and ‘heavy-handed’ technique under his belt, he could loosen up, and discover new possibilities with colour and light, and especially with design. Canaletto’s composition is a bit of a mess; lots of piles, sticks of wood and fussy details cluttering things up. It is as if he needed to translate his early set designer’s rapid painterliness into something correspondingly elusive and delicate, even though he was working in what was now essentially a graphic medium. His does this largely with sparkling touches of light. The overall colouring is yellowish, and the core idea of the colour composition is the way the reds and ochres of the tower at the right are picked up by the explosion of pink in the sky at the left. In fact Canaletto was extraordinarily dependent on his pink and grey skies for colouristic interest, and pictorial interest generally. Bellotto, by contrast, in his version already employs in the chimneyed building those extraordinary whites that will characterise his subsequent work, which are set off by subdued greens, blues and greys. There is practically nothing going on in the sky at all, and the tower itself is now a reticent grey, yielding its colouristic primacy to the chimneyed building. Canaletto’s messy jetty is transformed and simplified into something quite serene. The result is hypnotic, as later Bellottos frequently are.

If we now move on to the Guardi, it is quite another story. Guardi was popular with collectors in the 1920s, and he strikes me as a very twenties painter. He seems to embody those suffocating English values of reticence and tastefulness, like the etchings of the period. They cry out to be considered in terms of connoisseurship, not the hard-nose connoisseurship of getting the attribution right, but the connoisseurship of men in velvet smoking jackets distinguishing themselves from the herd by their exquisite taste. For this to work Guardis have to be in very good condition, as this work from the National Gallery of course is (Fig. 3). But while one can appreciate and admire Guardi’s flecky tonal subtlety, it makes one long for Bellotto’s ability to transform his heavy-handed tonal contrasts into serene geometry. In the biggest room, Room 4, devoted to festivals and ceremonies, has its tone set by a swag of big paintings by Carlevaris. Carlevaris, who preceded Canaletto, was above all a festival painter, and never happier than when painting thousands of figures in a festive display of massed colours. One of his best known paintings is the Reception of the British Ambassador Charles Montagu, 4th Earl of Manchester, at the Doge’s Palace, 22 September 1707 from Birmingham (no. 2) (Fig. 7) which is here hung to be compared to Canaletto’s Reception of the French Ambassador Jacques-Vincent Languet, Comte de Gergy at the Doge’s Palace, 4 November 1727 (no. 13) (Fig. 8). Canaletto moves the viewpoint back to bring a canal into view, probably, I suspect, because he would rather paint gondolas than yet more massed figures. But the most interesting comparison is another three-way one, between Carlevaris, Canaletto and Guardi. The Carlevaris shows the Regatta on the Grand Canal in Honour of Frederick IV, King of Denmark and Norway, 4 March 1709 from the Getty (Fig. 9), and the painter is genuinely interested, as we all should be, in the temporary festival structures created for the occasion. At the left we see musicians seated on a macchina involving a lot of palm trees in front of Palazzo Balbi. In the middle ground there are wonderful fan-like structures decorating the sterns of boats. This is a view deep down the Grand Canal, but if we step back and look at this and the other Carlevarises around the room we notice how planar they are. Carlevaris employed the perspective composition favoured by seventeenth-century architectural painters, which places the main building parallel to the picture plane, another at right angles, and a simple recession to a vanishing point somewhere near the centre of the picture. Carlevaris is uninterested in distances; gondolas and angles lead off down the Grand Canal, but all the action is concentrated in the foreground. Canaletto, with his knowledge of post-Bibiena scenography, tried to liven things up, and in his Regatta on the Grand Canal (1733-34; Royal Collection, no. 17) (Fig. 10) he plays down the Palazzo Balbi in favour of the deep recession of the Grand Canal, made possible by the reducing the foreground boats to a thin band across the bottom. In the middle ground racing gondolas bounce their way into the distance, while decorated barges are lined up on either side like stage wings. Canaletto is uninterested in the festivities as such; for him they are just an excuse for a pyrotechnic display of duelling feathers that almost cease to represent, functioning as pure calligraphy. When Guardi tackled the theme (no. 60, Gulbenkian Museum) (Fig. 11), following Canaletto’s composition, he crumples up the facades along the Grand Canal, folding them first in then out like a Cubist painter at work: the veduta as origami.

There are many other artists represented, and the comparisons that the hang engenders, and the process of moving in on the detail and out to the composition makes one understand the differences between these painters much better. If one returns to the first room there is one of the better examples of those recently rediscovered early painterly Canaletto (some of which are quite awful), but it cannot compete with Gaspar Van Wittel’s The Molo from the Bacino di S. Marco (no. 1, 1697) from the Prado (Fig. 12), refreshingly coloured in blues and rich greens, and with its representation of the earlier version of the Bucintoro, the barge used for the Ascension day ceremony. In the festivals room is a vast Antonio Joli of the Bacino di S. Marco and the Molo with the Formal Entrance of the Apostolic Nuncio Monsignor Giovanni Francesco Stoppani, 17 April 1741 (no. 34, Washington) (Fig. 13). A curiously old-fashioned picture, it has a planar middle ground of the Molo dancing to its own curiously bowed perspective, and the Dogana looking like a theatre wing and not really engaging with the Molo. Marieschi can be quite startling, especially in the perspective of the Rialto Bridge from the Riva del Vin (1737, no. 39) (Fig. 14), which the label in explanation gives the usual nod to optical devices, but in fact view painters get their weirder effects from unusual choices of vanishing points and disjunctive perspective systems. And Johann Richter (no. 6, The Entrance to the Grand Canal looking East) emerges as rather tentative in composition and execution (Fig. 15).

National Gallery, London website –      National Gallery, Washington website and list of images

© David R. Marshall 2011

[NB Click on the thumbnails to view larger versions. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the ‘View the latest post at’ link to the MAN website to view the show properly]

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Fig. 1 Canaletto ‘The Torre di Malghera’ about 1756.

Fig. 2 Bernardo Bellotto ‘The Torre di Malghera’ c.1744.

Fig. 3 Francesco Guardi ‘Malghera’ c.1770s.

Fig. 4 Pietro Bellotti ‘The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking East, with Santa Maria della Salute’ 1743-4.

Fig. 5 Bernardo Bellotto ‘The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day’ 1739.

Fig. 6 Bernardo Bellotto ‘Piazzetta’.

Fig. 7 Luca Carlevarijs ‘The Reception of the BritishAmbassador Charles Montagu, 4th Earl of Manchester, at the Doge’s Palace, 22 September 1707’ about 1707-8.

Fig. 8 Canaletto ‘Reception of the French Ambassador Jacques-Vincent Languet, Comte de Gergy at the Doge’s Palace, 4 November 1727’  1740s.

Fig. 9 Luca Carlevaris ‘Regatta on the Grand Canal’ 1711.

Fig. 10 Canaletto ‘Regatta on the Grand Canal’ 1733-4.

Fig. 11 Francesco Guardi ‘The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco’ 1697.

Fig. 12 Gaspare Vanvitelli ‘The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco’ 1697.

Fig. 13 Antonio Joli ‘The Bacino di San Marco and the Molo with the Formal Entrance of the Apostolic Nuncio Monsignor Giovanni Francesco Stoppani, 17 April 174’ about 1742.

Fig. 14 Michele Marieschi ‘Rialto Bridge from Riva del Vin’ 1737.

Fig. 15 Johan Richter ‘The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking East, with the Bridge of Boats for the Feast of the Madonna della Salute’ before 1728.