Venice ‘Postcards’ by Canaletto, Rivals Go on Show: Review

"The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day" (1710) by Luca Carlevarijs. The painting is in "Canaletto and His Rivals" at the National Gallery, London, until January 16. Source: National Gallery via Bloomberg

Here’s a question: “When is a Canaletto not a Canaletto?”

The answer might seem obvious: when it was painted by somebody else. This is what “Canaletto and His Rivals” at the National Gallery in London investigates.

It’s an old-fashioned show, all about connoisseurship -- that is, who made which picture, and when? Views of 18th-century Venice present thorny problems of that kind, as so many of the artists who did them were connected in some way to Canaletto, otherwise known as Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768).

The exhibition is made up of his work, plus that of his predecessors, pupils, competitors, and two of his nephews. On show are numerous paintings that closely resemble each other. Never before can so many views of the Grand Canal and Doge’s Palace have been shown together in one place.

The show makes close comparisons between highly similar pictures. Here’s a view of “Campo Santa Maria Formosa” by Canaletto, and here’s one of the same subject by his nephew Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780). Spot the difference! There are certainly conclusions to be drawn from such juxtapositions. In this case, the Bellotto is plainly better than his uncle’s work.

All those comparisons are likely to bemuse visitors who aren’t specialists in 18th-century Venetian view painting (close, presumably, to 100 percent of them). That’s a shame, because the show contains fabulous pictures, including moody early Canalettos in which he almost seems like a pre-Romantic artist.

Good and Boring

There are other equally intriguing questions that the show doesn’t quite address: Why was Canaletto so good and, at the same time, sometimes so boring? The answers are to do with market forces and technological innovation.

The 18th-century boom in views of Venice was an early symptom of the international tourist trade. These works weren’t sold to Venetians, who knew what their city looked like already. They were sold to foreign travelers -- mainly English and more infrequently German -- who came on the Grand Tour. These visitors generally wanted souvenirs of the most obvious places, the kind that would later be on postcards, hence the interminable representations of the Doge’s Palace. Canaletto did his best not to repeat himself, yet tedium sometimes set in.

The technology was the camera obscura -- a filmless predecessor of the modern camera. Art historians tend not to like the idea that old masters used these devices. A fierce rear-guard action is still being fought against the notion that Vermeer and Caravaggio used cameras. But in the case of Canaletto and his contemporaries the evidence is unequivocal: there’s even a caricature of one of the artists in the exhibition, Michele Marieschi (1710-1743), standing beside a portable version of the device.

Shrinking St. Mark’s

How did it help? These pictures aren’t just copies of the images the artists saw in their cameras. For one thing, many of them are seen from imaginary or impossible positions. Often they subtly redesign the buildings of Venice (shortening the bell tower of St. Mark’s to make it fit, for instance).

The camera obscura was an aid with architectural verisimilitude -- there are drawings by Canaletto that have obviously been traced from the image in the camera. Above all, it helped him to paint natural-seeming daylight. He was, a contemporary noted, a painter who could “make the sun shine.” That was his secret.

“Canaletto and His Rivals,” which is sponsored by Credit Suisse Group AG, is at the National Gallery, London, through Jan. 16, 2011. The show later travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Feb. 20-May 30, 2011) Information: and

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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