by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, London
The Stonemason's Yard by Canaletto, c.1725

Canaletto: the Early Years

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 5 May 2001


For many artists a visit to Rome has been a revelation, but for Canaletto it marked a complete change of course for a painter who might otherwise be remembered only as an obscure footnote in theatrical history.

He went there in 1719 with his father, Bernardo Canal, a theatrical scene painter, to prepare sets for two Alessandro Scarlatti pieces that were to be presented in the Carnival of 1720. But Canaletto ('Little Canal') also found time to sketch views of the city and its ancient monuments. In so doing he discovered his real metier, and on returning to Venice presently abandoned the security of the family business and struck out on his own as a painter of his native city.

The first decade of Canaletto's activity as an independent artist is now unfolded in an illuminating and elegantly presented show, 'Canaletto: The Early Works,' at the Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where more than 100 paintings and drawings from some 30 collections will remain on display until June 10.

Already in his early twenties, Canaletto came relatively late to view-painting and was essentially self-taught in it - a reason why, as Hugo Chapman points out in his excellent short essay in the catalogue, some works that now seem indubitably to be by Canaletto were previously disputed on account of their technical shortcomings.

It is exhilarating to see how rapidly he mastered his new craft, without losing that freshness, sense of drama and humor that make his work so lively and appealing. It is equally interesting to see how soon these qualities attracted buyers, even when his technique was not fully formed, a phenomenon highlighted by the show's ordering of the pictures not chronologically, but according to the Italian and foreign collectors who originally bought them. (In some cases these groupings are recreated for the first time since the 18th century.)

Even in the early Rome drawings, certain characteristics emerge that were to become abiding features of the artist's work. The use of small figures, for example, not merely as decorative devices but as players of intriguing, incidental, miniature social comedies is already established, as is a willingness to deviate from strict topographical accuracy to enhance the picturesque. And, of course, he was to make lifelong use of his spell in Rome not only in views of the city he painted long after his visit, but also in his 'capricci,' or imaginary views, many of which contain ancient ruins.

Canaletto seems to have had a clear idea of the kind of pictures he wanted to paint from very early on, after which it was primarily a question of adapting his considerable innate gifts, through trial and error, to realize his vision on canvas. In both his early drawing and painting he showed an unusual control over both large architectural structures and minute detail, but was constantly experimenting with broader, more flamboyant brushstrokes to energize his scenes with immediacy and life. A brilliant example of his determination to capture vibrancy and shimmer through virtuoso brushwork is provided by a wonderful pair of canvases from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, of two views over the lagoon, painted with tremendous energy and panache and suffused with a bold luminosity that is almost startlingly colorful.

All in all, the trajectory described by this show, from the first Roman pictures, with their curious blend of amateurism and self-assurance, sometimes slightly off-beam perspective and idiosyncratic touches (his signature man-seen-from-behind-relieving-himself-against-a-wall makes his debut here), to the last picture in the exhibition, a masterfully executed, dazzlingly lit image of the Doge's gorgeously gilded barge in a teeming St. Mark's Basin on Ascension Day, is an amazing one, and to follow it deepens our understanding of Canaletto's oeuvre as a whole.

Encouraged by his exceptional popularity among English collectors, fostered by his patron, agent and adviser, Consul Smith, Canaletto made his way to England in the mid-1740s. The English painting establishment saw him as an interloper, a reaction at least partly motivated by jealousy and, in one of the more bizarre episodes in art history, it was soon being maliciously put about that Canaletto was an impostor and that the real one was still on the Continent. This alter ego was Bernardo Bellotto, the painter's nephew, who had trained in his uncle's studio, where he learned to mimic his mentor's style, sometimes with uncanny skill - a source of confusion when it came to attributions later on.

Bellotto left Italy in 1747, at the time of his 25th birthday, going first to Dresden and later to Warsaw, never to return to his native land. Bellotto unquestionably contributed greatly to the rumors of impostors and assumed identities, by using his uncle's name and even signing pictures with it. And in Poland, Bellotto is known as 'Canaletto' until this day.

Bellotto had the enormous advantage of inheriting a style and technique without having to forge one of his own, but in the long term this counted against him, winning him the reputation as a mere follower and imitator.

A substantial exhibition, 'Bernardo Bellotto: 1722-1780,' at the Correr Museum, now aims to make a case for Bellotto's importance in his own right. (The show continues here until June 27, before appearing at the Fine Arts Museum in Houston, from July 29 until Oct. 21.)

Bellotto's decision to leave Venice was a productive one, since it exposed him to wider horizons that he now had to confront alone. Before departing Italy, he did some splendid panoramas, notably of Verona and Turin. His journey to Germany and Poland further presented him with very different landscapes and the challenge of rendering northern light.

The more extensive rural surrounds of his views in this part of the world also forced him to deal with landscape and the rustic population in a way that his uncle, even in his London days an inveterate town mouse, seldom had to do. And it is among these vistas of castle, town, river and country that we find Bellotto's most distinctive and satisfying works.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023