‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ at the National Gallery

On to more cheerful subjects — I went to see the Canaletto exhibition at the NG the other day. Which i enjoyed, entirely predictably; because I’m not sure Canaletto is one of the very greatest painters in the European tradition, but he is one of the most likeable. I’ve never seen a Canaletto I wouldn’t like to own. He clearly had a bit of conveyer belt going on at one stage, producing standard views of Venice for English tourists, but even at their most formulaic, his paintings are cheerful, decorative and full of engaging details.

This exhibition puts his career in the context of other painters of Venetian view paintings at the time, which makes for interesting comparisons. For example, there are three paintings displayed alongside each other of regattas on the Grand Canal, one by Canaletto and the others by, I think, Michele Marieschi and Bernardo Bellotto. The stylistic differences are interesting, but the most striking thing is how differently they portray the physical reality of the scene; the canal is about half as wide in the Marieschi* as the Canaletto, presumably to create a livelier, more crowded scene.

The other two most notable things, for me, were Canaletto’s early style and the works of Francesco Guardi. Canaletto’s earliest paintings of Venice were rather looser, with much broader brushstrokes; but they are also greyer and a bit grittier. They don’t have that amazing glowing Mediterranean light which is so much part of the later works, but also they make Venice look a bit shabby, a bit dirty; a city of faded glories. There’s a painting of St Mark’s square with market stalls clustered around the bottom of the basilica and campanile, and the size of the building makes the rather ragged stalls and people look paltry and insignificant, while the stalls in turn undercut the grandeur of the basilica.

I wouldn’t want to read too much into it — I daresay he was aiming for straightforward realism rather than biting social commentary — but it does make you realise how much more flattering his later paintings are. They are all glowing and sparkly, and while they do still have disreputable looking characters in them, they now look like lively local colour rather than slightly seedy. I have to say I rather liked the early paintings, but I can see why it was the later work that was so commercially successful. I don’t know whether he consciously changed his style specifically to make his work more marketable: it seems quite likely. And why not, after all.

And the Francesco Guardi paintings were interesting to me just because I was unfamiliar with his work. It’s much more stylised than Canaletto, with suggestive little brushstrokes and curious little pin-headed figures. You can see why his work was rediscovered and celebrated by C19th artists as being ahead of his time; he’s clearly moving in the direction of painters like, to make the obvious Venice comparison, Turner. Like Turner, he favoured scenes with a lot of water and sky — boats on the lagoon, rather than, or as well as, more architectural subjects.

* I think. I suppose I could try taking notes at these exhibitions if I’m going to blog about them later… nah.

» The picture is a detail from Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Giudecca with the Zitelle.

‘Canaletto in England’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery

I almost forgot to blog about the Canaletto exhibition at DPG which I went to on Friday. As the title suggests, it focusses on Canaletto’s time in England. I knew he’d painted a few paintings of London, but I was surprised to learn that he lived here for nine years.

Not surprisingly, the show has been a big hit. He isn’t one of the top gods in my personal artistic pantheon, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Canaletto that I wouldn’t like to own. Elegant cityscapes bathed in sunlight and full of glittering water, with lots of little figures so that there’s always something to look at in the details: what’s not to like?

However, the Venice scenes he’s most known for can feel a little production-line. The Wallace Collection has a whole roomful of Canalettos. Seeing them all together, the sense of a commodity produced for the tourist market is overwhelming. So an exhibition of English scenes not only has local interest, it also offers a different perspective on the artist. This is Warwick Castle, which normally lives at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery:

By no means my favourite picture in the exhibition, or even my favourite picture of Warwick castle, but I couldn’t find many online. I rather liked this one, but the colours look screwy to me in that version.

As a Londoner, I was naturally drawn to the London pictures, although in fact if it wasn’t a few landmark buildings (St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey especially), I wouldn’t have felt confident identifing it as London. The period (1746-55) is just at the start of modern London, and there are enough C18th buildings left in London that the scenes often look generally Londony; but the specifics are almost all different. The skyline is dominated by church spires instead of office buildings, the river is heaving with traffic, and most of the key buildings haven’t been built yet. That in itself is part of the interest, of course.

It’s rather hard to find descriptions of Canaletto that don’t sound like damning with faint praise: his paintings are elegant, decorative, likeable. To some extent this is just a reflection of a shift in taste; we’re all Romantics now, and we’re all suckers for the sublime. In 1826, Hazlitt wrote, in ‘On Depth and Superficiality’:

Elegance is a word that means something different from ease, grace, beauty, dignity; yet it is akin to all these; but it seems more particularly to imply a sparkling brilliancy of effect with finish and precision. We do not apply the term to great things; we should not call an epic poem or a head of Jupiter elegant, but we speak of an elegant copy of verses, an elegant headdress, an elegant fan, an elegant diamond brooch, or bunch of flowers. In all these cases (and others where the same epithet is used) there is something little and comparatively trifling in the objects and the interests they inspire… [long snip]

The Hercules is not elegant; the Venus is simply beautiful. The French, whose ideas of beauty or grandeur never amount to more than an elegance, have no relish for Rubens, nor will they understand this definition.

I’m not sure Canaletto would have been very sympathetic to Hazlitt’s definition either. I’m not sure I am completely, but for better or worse, our taste in places and art has been re-shaped by the Romantics. The Romantic approach has its own pitfalls, of course; insisting that art should have profundity and authenticity tends to result in a lot of fake profundity and fake authenticity. And the borderline between sublime and kitschy is wafer-thin. I really like this painting (Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) by James Ward), but its wildness is so theatrical that it’s difficult to take it completely seriously:

No 500 pixel version can do it justice; the real thing is 14′ wide.

Anyway, I’ve wandered off the point slightly. I actually think, despite everything I’ve been saying, that Canaletto’s paintings are just too attractive to be easily dismissed. Here’s one (Old Walton Bridge Over The Thames) which is actually part of the Dulwich permanent collection. Unusually, it has a few clouds, and is perhaps all the better for it:

Nice, innit. For a video introduction to the exhibition, go here.