Progression of Art
Veduta ideata with Roman Ruins
Direct precedents for Canaletto's painting can be found in the work of the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain who made his name in Italy during the precedding (seventeenth) century. Claude is credited with turning the landscape genre into the more respectable "history painting", and, like Claude, Canaletto would dramatize his historical tableaus with a smattering of small figures. Here, ancient Roman monuments in various states of deterioration dominate the foreground of Canaletto's painting. A few stray figures are depicted in the painting including a figure sitting at the base of a building on the left side of the canvas and two men near a small pool in the center foreground. In the background, along the Tiber River, additional architectural structures are visible including the famous Trajan's Column and a barely visible dome from the Castel Sant'Angelo.
This painting is an early example of the subject matter Canaletto turned towards after deciding to give up on theatrical sceneries, though one can see those influences here in this impressive topography. Canaletto's superb mastery of perspective, a technique fostered under the Renaissance tradition of his native Italy, is also in abundant evidence. Indeed, art historian Bożena Anna Kowalczyk attributed his mastery of perspective to his time spent working in the theater: "the precise perspective ad angolo [angled], in keeping with the rules of theatrical scenography [...] governs the arrangement of the buildings in the space, as well as that of the cistern in the foreground." While Canaletto's later paintings and drawings would favor more naturalistic renderings of cityscapes, here we still see a clear foreshadowing of the vedute style for which he would become most well-known.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
A series of architectural structures dominate the canvas of Canaletto's Architectural Capriccio. The largest building, occupying the right foreground of the canvas, features an arch under which one man sits while another two figures are seen passing through. The "Capriccio" of the painting's title acts to inform the spectator that the painting is in fact a fantasy; albeit a fantasy grounded in reality.
Completed early in his career, and while still in Rome, this work is an example of the veduta ideata style in which real and imaginary combinations are used to heighten the picture's sense of drama. Canaletto had used real architectural structures as the template for his painting, but, in a gesture of artistic licence, he combined the Roman architectural elements of his immediate surroundings with those belonging to his native Venice. Once more, the theatrical element of the painting reflects Canaletto's early training, yet the vivid attention to fine detail in which he renders the landscape sets the bar for the rest of his career. Indeed, in her analysis of the painting, Kowalczyk suggested that Canaletto had established "a discourse on classical and Renaissance Venetian architecture that would guide his future creations." Kowalczyk also speculated that the figure seated under the arch in the left foreground is a depiction of Canaletto himself, here engaged "in the act of measuring the buildings with a pencil." Whether or not the figure was autobiographical, the idea that the artist could be charged with the responsibility of capturing a memory of the city was an obligation that Canaletto took to heart and established his position within the pantheon of Italian masters.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
The Rialto Bridge from the North
This Canaletto painting features an iconic view of Venice: that of the Rialto Bridge positioned between city buildings on either side of the Grand Canal. While the bridge is visible in the left background of the canvas, the viewer's eye must first travel along the water on which floats many gondolas. The subject of the Grand Canal was a favorite for Canaletto who took up the theme shortly after his return from Rome in 1720. This particular example is one of twelve compositions of the canal observed from the same vantage point. The painting was also one of several Canaletto's acquired (through his agent Joseph Smith) by King George III of England.
Characteristic of his style, the view served almost as a facsimile of modern Venice. Here, for instance, one can see key architectural features including the Rialto Bridge, the edge of the Palazzo Civran on the left bank of the canal, the uppermost section of the San Bartolomeo's Bell Tower in the background, and the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi on the right bank. Despite his commitment to the rules of verisimilitude, however, Canaletto was not above embellishing his work through subtle geographic modifications. According to a catalogue entry from The Royal Collection Trust, "there is no one viewpoint that encompasses all these crowded buildings, and Canaletto has opened out the topography to give an impression of space. The bridge has been moved to the left to show most of its width; the short, sunlit façade of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi actually lies almost flush with the front of the Fabbriche, and Canaletto turned the Palazzo through almost 90° to create a square on the bank of the canal." By taking such liberties with "the truth," Canaletto had created a more dramatic and aesthetically pleasing cityscape.
Oil on canvas - Collection of The Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom
The Clock Tower in the Piazza San Marco, Venice
As a detailed realization of early 18th century Venice, Canaletto's painting features the famous clock tower in the city's Piazza San Marco. Venetians and tourists are positioned throughout the square, going about their daily business under a crystal-clear blue and white sky. The clock tower appeared often in Canaletto's vedute work, but this painting is the only one that, by making the Clock Tower the focal point of his composition, celebrates this famous monument to the architecture of the early Venetian Renaissance.
Canaletto's paintings of Venice were in high demand amongst upper class tourists who, usually while embarked on the so-called "Grand Tour" of Europe, sought romanticized mementos of their time in the Italian city. While it is true that Canaletto often used a camera obscura as a means of achieving the most authentic and detailed architectural representations, this did not stop him from embellishing his cityscapes to the ends of geometric harmony and added drama. Indeed, according to the gallery label for this painting (held at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) "Canaletto has compressed the actual view in depth, because in reality the façade of Saint Mark's is located further back, nearer to the Clock Tower." This creative decision, coupled, for instance, with the red sheet draped over the balcony of an adjacent building, bring his painting an added allure and narrative subtlety.
Oil on canvas - Collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Chelsea from the Thames at Battersea Reach, London
In this waterscape, the Thames River dominates the canvas. A small swath of land is visible in the foreground with figures about to push two small rowboats onto the water; while in the background is a view of various Chelsea homes and buildings.
Canaletto applied his painting approach to the English landscape during a nine year stay in the country. While in England, he created many popular works that helped grow his reputation in Northern Europe. This painting was originally larger in scale and also featured views of the Chelsea College (according to Kowalczyk, "the painting was cut in two [after the artist's death]")
The Thames River was a frequent subject for Canaletto. But while this painting shows all his characteristic traits - namely: strong command of perspective, scrupulous attention to detail, and a highly realistic rendering of his material - of all the paintings of this theme, this work is one of the most interesting due to the events surrounding its creation. Canaletto painted the work upon returning to England after a brief return to Venice. However, once back in London he found that, not for the first time, he was the subject of rumors that an imposter (his nephew) was creating artworks in his name. To stave off damage to his artistic integrity, Canaletto paid for an advertisement inviting the general public to come to his studio and observe him as he painted this river scene.
Oil on canvas - Collection of The Lothian Collection (National Trust), Blickling Hall, England
Warwick Castle: The East Front
The subject of this drawing is Warwick Castle, a medieval structure located in Warwickshire, England. The work features not only the castle but a pastoral landscape in which various well-dressed figures are engaged in leisurely strolls and conversations.
Warwick Castle was a source of interest for Canaletto once he had left the confines of London and ventured further out into the English countryside. In addition to five paintings of the castle, he created several drawings of the structure. His drawings, which increased in number, were more than additions to his preparatory pieces (for his paintings) and reflected a new market in England for works produced in real time (rather than finished later in the studio).
In his book "Canaletto at Warwick", David Buttery describes how the Earl of Warwick, Lord Brooke, had undertaken a project to improve Warwick Castle and "the newly landscaped grounds designed by 'Capability' Brown". The commission - including five oil paintings and three pen and ink drawings - is thought to have been funded by Lord Brooke for his London residence and in order "to allow him to present the newly improved Castle to his London associates." In support of his research, Buttery was able to present a receipt for one of the earlier paintings - written and signed by the Canaletto himself - and "hidden" hitherto in Warwick's County Record Office. It reads thus:
As of 28 July 1748 London Received I Giovanni Antonio Canal from the doer [agent] of the most excellent My Lord Brooke, ten guineas, and this for the price of a small painting by me painted, with the view of the castle of the said My Lord.
Speaking of the Warwick sketches, meanwhile, Kowalczyk noted, "during the years in England, drawing rose to a new role" and more finely-honed drawings "properly finished with wash, began to appear." Indeed, Canaletto's reputation as a supreme draughtsman was enhanced by these pieces which were in very high demand amongst collectors. In her analysis of this picture, Kowalczyk picked out the "slightly wavy strokes in the rendering of the castle structures [...] the fluid rounded strokes of the figures [that] contribute, together with the impressionistic application of the wash in the shadows cast by the trees, to the creation of a vibrant luminosity and atmospheric effect." As Kowalczyk further observed, these were "effects that would influence the School of English Landscape Painters, beginning with Paul Sandby."
Pen and brown ink with gray wash - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
The Piazza San Marco, looking East from the Colonnade of the Procuratie Nuove, Venice
Rather than his familiar expansive horizontal cityscapes, a number of Canaletto's late works were vertical and smaller in scale. In this painting, Canaletto provides only an intimate glimpse of the Piazza San Marco by focusing on one side of the square where aspects of a row of buildings dominate the left side of the canvas. In the background we see recognizable Venetian structures including the San Marco Bell Tower but the focal point of the painting is a group of three well-dressed men, two seated against a column with a dog at their feet, and a third standing nearby wearing a long green cloak. They are patrons of the first self-styled Italian café (which was founded in 1720).
This work provides an important example of the paintings Canaletto created immediately after his return home following his extended stay in England. The work represents a shift in artistic style and one can see a willingness to embrace the Rococo style. There is therefore a softening of brushstrokes and a lightening of the intensity of detail as well as a picture scenario that is more focused on leisure and frivolity. For Kowalczyk this work's importance to Canaletto's late career cannot be understated: "in terms of the scene depicted and the finely crafted execution, with the points of light applied with full brush strokes and scattered over the figures and the decorative parts of the architecture, this painting is one of the most refined and joyous examples of Rococo Venetian art."
Oil on canvas - Collection of The National Gallery, London, England