Truman Capote compared Venice to “eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
To the many admirers of that intoxicating city, Paris offers two unmissable exhibitions featuring the two greatest painters specializing in its portrayal -- Canaletto and Francesco Guardi.
Canaletto (1697-1768) -- or “Little Canal,” his real name being Giovanni Antonio Canal -- wasn’t the first to realize that topographically accurate cityscapes were big business.
Once the Grand Tour became a standard part of the education of the English aristocracy, wealthy young gentlemen flocked to the Continent eager to bring back souvenirs.
Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice and himself a collector, acted as Canaletto’s virtual agent -- to their mutual benefit. He later sold his library and the bulk of his collection to King George III, which explains why eight of the 50 paintings and drawings at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre come from Windsor Castle.
In 1746, Canaletto even moved to England where he spent nine years. Most of his London views and English country houses, however, are lifeless and dull, causing rumors that he was an impostor, not the real thing.
Canaletto worked with the aid of a camera obscura, an apparatus which projects the image of a scene onto a sheet of paper. We therefore can assume that he gives us an exact idea of what Venice looked like 300 years ago and how far buildings have sunk with rising water levels.
On the other hand, it’s evident that he learned his craft from his stage-designer father: His “vedute” (views) took poetic liberties and dramatized reality with stark contrasts of light and shade.
In his “capricci” (whims) he even went so far as to combine existing with freely invented townscapes.
In this he was close to Francesco Guardi (1712-93) who was less interested in topographical accuracy than in creating a vibrant atmosphere.
Guardi came late to the genre: In the first half of his career, he mostly produced altarpieces, in tandem with his brother Gianantonio.
During his lifetime, he never achieved Canaletto’s fame and financial success. His genius was fully appreciated only at the end of the 19th century by a generation of connoisseurs who had learned to look at canvases with the eyes of the Impressionists.
The exhibition at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre also includes Canaletto’s nephew and pupil Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80) who used his uncle’s name, a confusion that did his career no harm.
Bellotto left Venice for good when he was in his twenties and worked at the courts of Dresden, Vienna, Munich and Warsaw. When Warsaw was rebuilt after the ravages of World War II, his meticulous views of the city were used as models.
The second show, at the Musee Maillol, is limited to paintings and drawings by Canaletto, many from private collections. The most fascinating items are his sketchbook and a modern reproduction of his camera obscura.
“Canaletto-Guardi” at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, which is supported by GDF-Suez, runs through Jan. 14, 2013. Information: http://www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com.
“Canaletto a Venise” at the Musee Maillol runs through Feb. 10, 2013. Information: http://www.museemaillol.com.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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