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Venice Canaletto and his Rivals, The National Gallery Oct 2010

October 31, 2010

Venice Canaletto and his Rivals

The National Gallery  13 October 2010 – 16 January 2011


Regata on the Grand Canal by Canaletto

Regata on the Grand Canal by Canaletto.


This is an exhibition of paintings by Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto) and his contemporaries.  The idea behind the exhibition is to show Canaletto’s work in the context of similar works from the same period.  All the paintings are views of Venice.  Apart from Canaletto the artists exhibited include Luca Carlevarijs, Michele Marieschi, Bernardo Bellotto and Francesco Guardi.  Some of these artists, such as Marieschi, were competitors of Canaletto’s.  Bellotto, on the other hand, was Canaletto’s nephew and was trained by him. 

It was fascinating to see all these views of Venice in one place, where the similarities and differences can easily be observed.  The exhibition is in the basement of the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery and is set out in six rooms.

Room 1: Canaletto and his early rivals.

Room 2: Canaletto and Marieschi.

Room 3: Canaletto and Bellotto.

Room 4: Festivals and Ceremonies.

Room 5: Canaletto and Guardi.

Room 6: Canaletto and Guardi.

In a separate room a film about Canaletto’s Venice and his English patrons is shown.  The film is in English but also has English subtitles.  One of the main points made by the film is that the vedute genre – views of Venice – was a product of the Grand Tour.

 On walking through the exhibition my first thought was that rarely can so many paintings of views of Venice have been gathered together in one place.  The same scenes kept reappearing, St Mark’s Square and Santa Maria della Salute, for example.  But there are also paintings of lesser-known parts of Venice including views of  less affluent areas and one painting of the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace.

The Grand Canal at Rialto Bridge by Canaletto.

The Grand Canal at Rialto Bridge by Canaletto.

While all the artists on display paint similar scenes there is considerable variation in style. Guardi’s paintings are atmospheric in an impressionist way.  Marieschi’s paintings are dramatic and somewhat theatrical.  Canaletto’s own style also changed during his long career.  In Room 1 we see Canaletto’s early style: his is painting in a way that looks more modern and spontaneous than many of his later works.  Room 2 illustrates  how Canaletto in the 1730s developed  the commercial style with which he is now most associated.  This was the style most valued by patrons such as the Englishman Joseph Smith. In Room 3 paintings by Canaletto and Bellotto of almost identical views can be compared side by side.  While Bellotto is obviously working under the influence of Canaletto, he can be seen to be developing his own style.

Santa Maria della Salute by Michele Marieschi

One of the main things I learned from this exhibition is that these artists are doing much more than recording literal views of Venice.  Both Canaletto and Marieschi began their careers as theatre set-painters and were influenced by the illusionistic designs of the Galli da Bibiena brothers.  Canaletto’s earliest work in display in the exhibition is, in terms of technique, the kind of work found in contemporary set-painting.  In other works buildings and monuments are changed in scale and multiple viewpoints are used to create views that are not possible to the naked eye.  However, these views doubtless include everything that the patron wanted in the picture.

Marieschi’s work (less famous than Canaletto he died when he was only 32) is particularly influenced by the set designs of baroque theatre.  One large view of the Rialto bridge brilliantly foreshortens the bridge: we could indeed be looking at a stage set.

One question raised by the exhibition is whether Canaletto is really better than his contemporaries or is just better known because of his commercial success.  This is a question for every visitor to answer for themselves.  I found the work of Marieschi particularly interesting and distinctive.  Guardi too has a distinctive style and could be regarded as an early Romantic.

Santa Maria della Salute by Francesco Guardi.

Santa Maria della Salute by Francesco Guardi.

Despite his fame when Canaletto died, probably in the same Venetian apartment where he was born, he had only a few possessions.  His great international reputation did not leave him with any great wealth.

The cost of entry to the exhibition is £12.00 (the usual concessions are available) and you have to enter in a specified half and hour slot.  But once in you can stay as long as you want.  One hour is probably long enough to take in this remarkable exhibition.  We may never get the chance to see a collection of paintings like this again, or at least, for a long time.

The images in this post are used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  They are not images of paintings in the exhibition.

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