Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 2, 2007
Charles Beddington Canaletto in England: A Venetian Artist Abroad, 1746–1755 Exh. cat. New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art and Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2006. 220 pp.; 120 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Paper $25.00 (0300119690)
Exhibition schedule: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, October 19–December 31, 2006; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, January 24–April 15, 2007
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Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto. An Imaginary Landscape with a Palace. ca. 1754. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Paul Mellon Collection. Image © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Visitors entering Canaletto in England at the Yale Center for British Art are confronted with two large canvases reunited for the first time in a century: a 1745–46 view of the Molo in Venice on Ascension Day (cat. 54, presumably painted in Venice), and a view of the Thames below Westminster on Lord Mayor’s Day a year or so later (cat. 23, painted in London). It is an instructive comparison that sets up the themes of style, subject matter, and patronage explored by this exhibition. The Venetian view features all of the mature vedutista’s familiar hallmarks, with its frontal portraits of the Serenissima’s civic landmarks balanced between expanses of bright blue skies and grayish green water crowded with ceremonial barges, elegant spectators, and working boats all passing at different paces and trajectories amid the flapping flags. We see nearly the same formula in the London picture, down to the gilded barges, to the extent that historians have read it as emblematic of English Whig patrons’ desire to stress the sister cities’ shared devotion to a mercantile ideal. That interpretation is strengthened by the discovery that the Thames view was likely commissioned to join the quartet of pictures George Garnier had purchased in Venice, including the scene at the Molo; it is even hypothesized (102) that support from Garnier and patrons like him induced Canaletto to make his journey.

Yet for all the similarities, this “northern analogue of the Sposalizio” (to quote Bruce Redford in his Venice and the Grand Tour [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996] and cited in the catalogue) packs quite a different visual punch: the composition has emptied out, the viewpoint has risen, the buildings have shrunk, and Italy’s obedient white clouds become flashing pinkish puffs that mingle with smoke from a distant fire. That visual evolution would continue as the artist responded to his new surroundings over the next decade. His material has changed too, and the telling substitution of the Doge’s Palace and Campanile with Westminster Bridge, then still rising, announces that London is not an urban museum but a burgeoning, messy metropolis in the process of becoming the world’s preeminent colonial capital. It was a city that wanted a chronicler; and while his existing techniques would serve him well, Canaletto would need fresh eyes in order to capture the English scene. By bringing together not just these two Garnier pictures but a record number of works from Canaletto’s nine-year stay in England, this important and enjoyable exhibition shows how an artist anchored in one specific site and visual tradition started afresh in quite another.

Canaletto’s links to Britain began early on, perhaps through his participation in Owen MacSwinny’s Allegorical Tombs of British Worthies in the early 1720s; the artist’s first recorded patron would become the 2nd Duke of Richmond in 1723, who later supported him in London. At about the same time, Canaletto began his thirty-year partnership with Joseph Smith, the English consul in Venice, who became a broker between the notoriously prickly artist and the English patrons who became his bread and butter. By 1739 the Président de Brosses claimed that Canaletto had become so spoiled by English visitors willing to pay three times his asking price that it was impossible for anyone else to deal with him. It was presumably under Smith’s guidance that Canaletto replaced his more theatrical early manner for the cheerier, more neutral visions, supposedly painted “on the spot,” that made him the darling of the Grand Tour set. His reputation as a consummate and comprehensive topographer equipped him to seek his fortune in England in 1746, after the War of the Austrian Succession disrupted tourist travel and dried up his business. If his customers could not come to him, he would go to his customers in what was by then the largest and perhaps fastest growing city in the world. This prehistory is not emphasized in the Yale exhibition, but it is helpful to understand the depth of his English connection before Canaletto ever set foot on British soil. It is useful, too, to see him in the light of the many other Venetian expatriates—from Antonio Pellegrini and Sebastiano and Marco Ricci to Jacopo Amigoni and Antonio Joli—all lured to England by the prospect of lucrative work. For his part, Canaletto seems never to have learned English and maintained only a modest home and studio, neither of which deterred the aristocrats who lionized him between 1746 and 1755.

The exhibition is organized by site, beginning with the familiar views of London and the Thames. A vast canvas of St. James’s Park (cat. 17), the largest in the show, follows the initial pairing and reminds us of the challenges Canaletto faced in making interesting views out of such a different and seemingly unpromising urban fabric. Here, deprived of any obvious central focus or inherently picturesque buildings (most visible structures are of unadorned red brick), the artist instead provides a panorama animated by vignettes of daily life—a promenading couple, a fat man talking with a thin man, servants beating a carpet to ready No. 1 Downing Street for the season. The sense of openness and expanse is utterly unlike the tight urban corners Canaletto had painted in Venice, and seems to reflect his experience of the English capital as a space of possibility and experimentation.

That impression is confirmed by the knot of works clustered around Somerset House (where the Venetian consul had an apartment), which range from a more traditional portrait of the estate from the Thames to more unorthodox, asymmetrical views up and down the river from its broad terrace. That oft-repeated pairing is represented here by Yale’s own two pictures and two highly finished drawings. Throughout the show, drawings are interspersed with paintings to illustrate the many ways Canaletto used them: as on-site preliminary studies with notations about color and texture, as presentation drawings for prospective patrons, as records of successful compositions, and as works finished for sale in their own right. At Somerset House, the drawings illustrate how the artist tended to take multiple views from the same point, subtly modulating the scale and viewpoint, for use in making future replicas. The exhibited sheets (cat. 7 and 8) are presumably the ones Canaletto took back to Venice to paint for Joseph Smith during an interlude in his English sojourn (now in the royal collection, those pictures will be exhibited in Dulwich).

Canaletto was not above translating his “postcard” format to English soil, as documented in rather dull portraits of St. Paul’s, Eton, or Westminster Abbey complete with procession, like his famous views of the Scuola di S. Rocco some fifteen years before. Far more compelling are his multiple images of Westminster Bridge, an engineering feat that fascinated the Venetian and may even have occasioned his trip. One raking view from ground level (cat. 25) anticipates the soaring aqueducts of Hubert Robert. But the exhibition’s unquestioned star is the stunning view through one arch during construction (cat. 24), complete with scaffolding and a lone bucket suspended in midair over the distant dome of St. Paul’s. Of all Canaletto’s work, this picture seems to thematize his painting process with its emphasis on viewpoint and framing, while the contrasts of light and shade, solid and void, ashlar and ether, mortar and paint all imply that architects and vedutisti are children of the same mother.

It was also, significantly, created for one of the bridge’s commissioners, Sir Hugh Smithson (Percy), later 1st Duke of Northumberland and one of Canaletto’s major clients. The picture shows how Canaletto adapted the heroic idiom he had employed in Venice to capture exotic landmarks for foreign connoisseurs to record those patrons’ own homes or pet building projects. Such was the case with Syon House (which Smithson would soon inherit), old Walton Bridge (in an unusually wide-screen format for Jamaican merchant and pontifex Samuel Dicker), and most spectacularly in five large but minimalist paintings and three drawings of Warwick Castle made to record its remodeling by Lord Brooke. This monochrome and utterly un-Venetian subject forced Canaletto to focus on shadow, texture, massing, and tonal balance in an entirely new way. Of all the pictures in the show, these are perhaps the least readily identifiable as Canaletto, yet they depend as much as any in his oeuvre on a lifetime of meticulous observation and creative grappling with viewpoint and composition.

One of the exhibition’s most important contributions is, paradoxically, the decision by guest curator Charles Beddington to include the Italian views Canaletto produced while abroad. It comes as something of a shock to return to the Piazzetta and Palladian churches after so much English scenery, but it emphasizes that Canaletto was a full-service vedutista, willing and equipped to provide patrons with pictures of whatever they wanted to remember. He even returned to Roman scenes not glimpsed for a quarter century: the views of Piazza Navona and Piazza del Quirinale exhibited here were translated from seventeenth-century prints by Gomar Wouters with little loss of freshness or immediacy. They reveal that Canaletto’s haunting effect of presence was just that, and that for all his show of sketching “sopra il loco,” the heavy lifting was done in the studio. They also complicate simplistic notions of the artist’s “English” style and show that this savvy entrepreneur was quite able to switch modes as desired.

These Anglo-Italian views remind us, too, that much of Canaletto’s English production was “decorative,” conceived and commissioned for particular interior settings. This becomes evident in the exhibition’s fascinating final section on capricci, featuring two cartouche-shaped overdoors (cat. 58 and 59) recently identified by Francis Russell (and cited in the catalogue) as having been supplied for the upstairs “Dressing or Sitting Room” of the Countess of Chesterfield at Chesterfield House in Great Stanhope Street, one of the most fashionable mansions of its day. Although capricci (literally, fancies or whims) had long appealed to more intellectual Italian buyers who did not really need or want views, in England the mode allowed elite patrons to demonstrate the wit, learning, and sophistication they had acquired on their southern tours. The Chesterfield overdoors depict, appropriately, a Renaissance palace, while the three magnificent capricci painted for the 9th Duke of Norfolk show Canaletto at the height of his inventive power, concocting exuberant fantasy structures recalling Jacques de Lajoue: a domed, circular church with a Byzantine porch topped with a frescoed saintly apotheosis à la Tiepolo, or a colorful loggia with a proto-Impressionist vault and riots of decorative stucco. This trio survives in its original gilt frames by Canaletto’s London neighbor John Cuenot (not, unfortunately, reproduced in the catalogue), which helped unify the duke’s extensive picture gallery and reinforced the works’ rococo character. The catalogue photos also dampen their ethereal turquoise and peach palette, so striking in comparison with earlier works. These are fundamentally social pictures for a social setting, the main drawing room of a house described by guests at the 1756 unveiling as “infinitely superior to anything in this Kingdom . . . and to most of the things they had seen in Europe” (178). Although the ingredients here are exclusively southern, other of Canaletto’s capricci mingled English, Italian, and even Chinese elements. A striking case in point is one drawing (cat. 67) that imagines an English perpendicular chapel resembling that of King’s College rising behind Roman ruins beside the Venetian lagoon. The gothic chapel itself receives a Palladian portico, the perfect symbol of Canaletto’s creative fusion of disparate traditions.

The exhibition’s sensible catalogue contains full object entries as well as comparative illustrations of the masterpieces that could not be secured. It shows that the selection will be somewhat fuller in Dulwich, where two interior views of the rotunda at Ranelagh, rare in Canaletto’s work, will be supplemented by another of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster. Two strikingly stark views of Badminton House from a private collection (cats. 42–43) will also show Canaletto inflecting the English country house portrait for the Tory 4th Duke of Beaufort. While the approach view of the façade is traditional enough, with its expanse of green lawn, its pendant recreates the seignorial vista out from that façade over an open landscape dotted with Kentian pavilions and clumps of trees that embody the English picturesque.

The catalogue is prefaced by three helpful essays. Beddington’s summary of the artist’s English career and production will become the foundation for further study. Besides introducing the key patrons, he discusses the stylistic features of Canaletto’s English work (the lighter ground, brighter key, and sometimes calligraphic application of paint), which visitors can test by comparing views of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich done before and after his trip (cats. 2 and 1, respectively). Beddington also considers the question of studio assistance first mooted by George Vertue in 1749. Brian Allan surveys the London art world during Canaletto’s stay, noting that the capital’s domination by foreign artists had begun to yield by the time of his arrival and suggesting that the resulting tide of native boosterism, if not outright xenophobia, induced Canaletto to keep a low profile and remain largely aloof from the trends that would culminate in the foundation of the Royal Academy soon after his departure. The final essay by Francis Russell deftly untangles the web of largely Whig aristocrats who supported Canaletto in Italy and England, showing how their extensive suites of Italian pictures (culminating in the great Venetian Room at Castle Howard) carried political overtones. Canaletto maneuvered ably within this tight matrix, and Russell’s genealogies suggest how he adjusted each new viewpoint to entice the next link (Richmond, Smithson, Brooke) in the chain of oligarchs. Russell’s essay also restores a sense of how Canaletto’s pictures literally became part of this class’s power houses by anchoring coordinated hangs or taking permanent pride of place in stucco frames above doors or chimneypieces.

There are as many ways to view Canaletto in England as there are perspectives on Westminster Bridge, the artist’s favorite British subject. Italian specialists gain a fuller vision of the painter’s mature period (especially welcome after the 2001 show in Venice devoted to the early work), while students of British art learn just how important this interloper was for the development of native landscape and topography. Historians will be drawn to these images as windows onto a lost city—from Old Somerset House to Ranelagh—and one has only to move downstairs to the exhibition Art and Music in Britain to appreciate Canaletto’s importance in recording the ephemeral setting and society of Vauxhall gardens. The show ends, fittingly, with a reproduction of John Rocque’s 1746 city map with a key identifying the sites depicted. Louis Kahn’s warm modernist galleries prove an amicable host to these canvases, his square bays managing to suggest the elegant salons in which they were intended to shine. Best of all, the show’s tight focus, without a single distracting comparandum, leaves it to us to connect the pictures to our interpretive discourse of choice, or merely to admire the novelty of seeing England through Venetian eyes.

Jeffrey Collins
Professor and Chair of Academic Programs, Bard Graduate Center

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.