Most of us have probably seen Canaletto’s beautiful detailed paintings of 18th century Venice. Fewer of us have had the opportunity to see the wonderful exhibit at the National Gallery of Art titled “Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals”, which closes the end of May. The exhibit includes 20 works by Canaletto and 30 by his “rivals”, including his nephew Bernardo Bellotto.

Along with the exhibit, the Gallery is showing a 40 minute film, produced by the National Gallery in London, which I found to be an excellent introduction to the exhibit itself. It places Canaletto (born in 1697; died in 1768) in context, as the son of a theatrical set painter, with much talent, picking up on the detailed Dutch landscape and domestic paintings, and the broad brush cityscapes of unique Venice, which were becoming popular, especially with travelers. As a very young man, he traveled to Rome, and came home to study with Luca Carlevarijs, a painter of Venice scenes, several of whose works are on display in the exhibit.

The film also showed how carefully Canaletto, in some of his paintings which have hundreds (literally hundreds) of Venetians in the foreground, painted each person in great detail, both as to their physical positioning and posture, and as to their facial expressions. The film allows for closeups on some of these mini-portraits and you cannot help but be impressed. This was clearly an advance over Carlevarijs’ paintings.

You also learn about the effects of tourism, and especially of tourists from England, of which there were many, who began to purchase and collect paintings of the city. Many of these tourists were young gentlemen, on the ‘grand tour’, stopping at Venice for rest and relaxation, in this most liberal of European cities. The interest of these young noblemen in art and in Venice led to a change in the style of Canaletto and others. Where Canaletto started out painting very large canvasses, he began to concentrate on much smaller paintings, easier to ship and to display. A portion of the movie is filmed at the country home of an English nobleman who had, I think, more than a dozen Canalettos in his dining room.

Political problems in Europe interrupted British tourism in the 1740s, and Canaletto, keeping with his customers, moved to England, where he remained for almost ten years, painting English (and especiallyl London) scenes, which are equal in every respect to those painted in Venice. But this is an exhibit of Venice, and the English paintings are nowhere to be seen.

Some interesting tidbits:

1. “Canaletto” means “little canal”. This is not an out-of-the-blue nickname. Canaletto’s father was named Giovanni Antonio Canal.

2. Precise dating of his pictures is not always easy, but there is one that has been definitively dated 1723 because it shows the Piazza San Marco being repaved, and this is when the repaving was underway.

3. Theater was very big in Venice at this time, and Canaletto’s ability to capture mood, and to show deep perspective, probably came from his experience painting sets and flats at the theater.

4. He did paint scenes of poverty, and not just scenes of pageantry, glittering architecture and a populace made up of predominantly wealthy people – but these did not attract purchasers and as time went on, much of his work involved repeating scenes he had painted before.

5. The 50 paintings on display came from a number of sources, including the US, the UK, Spain, Germany, Canada, Portugal and France. Only one was borrowed from a museum in Venice, and one additional one elsewhere in Italy. (Of course, Italy was not a united country in the 18th century, so this is not surprising.) A number were from private collections, and several were owned by the English crown, which received them in lieu of tax payments, according to the signs by the paintings.

There are several Bellottos on display, and several Guardis. It’s hard to criticize these paintings, but you can, I think, tell them from the Canalettos. Which leads me to wonder why the exhibit was titled “Canaletto and his Rivals”. I am not sure that he had any rivals.

In this post, I have not shown any of the paintings, but just go to http://www.canalettogallery.org, where they seem to have everything – or to be more exact, where you can see 573 paintings by Canaletto!

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