Andrew Lambirth finds the National Gallery’s new exhibition on Canaletto and his contemporaries both illuminating and enjoyable
Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697–1768), better known as Canaletto, is a safe bet and a crowd-pleaser, and the weary critic is entitled to ask — not another Canaletto show? What can there be left to say? But note the exhibition title — Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals. Venice comes first, the great tourist trap herself, kingdom of the sea and romance-magnet, and in the placing of the words the unashamed popularism of the show emerges. Or so the cynic might think. In fact, this exhibition is not simply a celebration of Venice, but a carefully selected survey of Venetian view painting in the 18th century, full of surprises and revealing juxtapositions. This is an exhibition which manages that most difficult of feats: to combine scholarly exegesis with public approval.
In the first room is one of Canaletto’s earliest view paintings, ‘San Cristoforo, San Michele and Murano from the Fondamenta Nuove’ (c.1722), not at all typical of the later work. Here the paint-handling is deliciously smoky, smeary almost, thinly and broadly applied, and particularly effective in the brushing of the sky and water. For contrast, note the fluid dark cream façades catching the evening light. This was a very different, more moody Canaletto, and it’s good to be reminded that he was not all sunshine. Here, too, is the earliest dated Italian view painting, by the Dutchman Gaspare Vanvitelli (1652/3–1736), the founding father of the genre. A complex and crowded scene, but very like a stage set or a model layout, it is oddly lifeless when compared with the Canaletto. Also in this room is a trio of dark Canalettos: the charming and slightly dingy ‘Piazza San Marco, looking East’, dusty, dirty and highly authentic-looking; ‘The Rio dei Mendicanti, looking South’, in which the tenement buildings are quite superb; and ‘The Stonemason’s Yard’, where the grit is still present, but the sun is breaking through and charm obtrudes.
Room 2 offers a comparison between Canaletto and Michele Marieschi (1710–43), an artist who doesn’t appeal to my eye at all. Examine his ‘Bacino di San Marco’ alongside Canaletto’s version of the same scene. Marieschi’s view is greyer and less convincing. Like Canaletto he applies the convention of curly brackets to indicate the movement of the water, but Canaletto uses the device more inventively and his painting offers the sensation of greater depth and visual interest. There is a curious limpidity to the Marieschi, but Canaletto’s composition is less staged. It should not be forgotten that Canaletto trained originally as a painter of theatrical scenery and worked as such with his father and brother in Venice and Rome. Many of his contemporaries did likewise, but not all of them transcended the tricks of their first trade.
Of course, these paintings were produced for the 18th-century tourist market, for the aristocratic travellers making the Grand Tour who wished to return home bearing quality souvenirs of their jaunts. They were thus made for cognoscenti but also with an eye to the more obvious and dramatic charms of Venice: subtlety was not necessarily a prerequisite. Each painter tried to heighten the particular character of his work, in order to distinguish it from competitors. Bernardo Bellotto (1722–80) was Canaletto’s nephew, trained with him and very soon could turn out passable imitations of the master. But this wouldn’t make him famous in his own right, so he began to focus on his own interests, and became known for his cold, wintry light and vibrant blue skies. Room 3 is devoted to Bellotto and Canaletto and offers the chance to compare their views of ‘The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking East, with Santa Maria della Salute’, both painted in the early 1740s. Bellotto’s is the harsher image, undoubtedly because the light he casts in is colder. He has sharpened the detail, losing some of the harmony that Canaletto’s more golden light dispenses.
The main gallery, Room 4, has been given over to festivals and ceremonies, and is paradoxically the least interesting room here. Crowded squares and regattas, the Feast of the Ascension, should all provide marvellous subjects but the best things here are two small, subtle paintings by Francesco Guardi (1712–93), on either side of the exit. What a beautiful painter he is — particularly evident in his Piazza San Marco picture. The big paintings by Luca Carlevarijs (1663–1730) look tawdry by comparison: ‘The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco’ and ‘The Regatta on the Grand Canal’ are full of overheated colour and massed ranks of people. Of the smaller paintings, Canaletto’s ‘Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day’ is a marvel of clarity and elucidation.
In Rooms 5 and 6 we encounter Canaletto and Guardi at close quarters and learn a lot about their comparative strengths. Guardi was more interested in nature than in architecture and thus anticipated one of the chief concerns of Romanticism. This means that his big painting of the Rialto in Room 5 is good in parts — especially in the arcades fading off to the right — but isn’t a patch on his smaller, wilder works. There is much more life in his ‘Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge from the South’, articulated principally through the long oars of the gondoliers and the white water they cut. Canaletto’s painting of the same scene, hanging at right-angles to it, looks almost dull and pedestrian by contrast.
In the last room is an interesting further juxtaposition of Canaletto and Bellotto, again taking the same subject, this time ‘The Torre di Malghera’, in which Bellotto’s greyer but crisper version is unexpectedly the more appealing. But compare Guardi’s exquisite ‘Lagoon with the Torre di Malghera’: utterly different in treatment, minimal, magical, with man’s interventions resting reassuringly lightly on the bosom of nature. A final Guardi, ‘San Giorgio Maggiore and the Giudecca’, with its poignant sails and fine cloud-work, suggests that he, and not Canaletto, may be the star of the show.
The lavish accompanying book by Charles Beddington, which doubles as a catalogue, is published by the NG and distributed by Yale University Press in hardback at £35 (£19.99 in paperback), and would grace any coffee table or library shelf. In the end, the subject of view painting may become a trifle monotonous, as indeed it must have been somewhat mechanical for the participating artists. Anything you have to do repeatedly can become onerous: for Gainsborough it was face-painting, for Canaletto it was views. But there is enough variety among the 50-odd exhibits for the show to be both illuminating and highly enjoyable.
© STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM, ST PETERSBURG/VLADIMIR TEREBENIN, LEONARD KHEIFETS, YURI MOLODKOVETS
© MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO, MADRID