National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 9-10 (V:1-2), 1967

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Bernardo Bellotto's Venetian Period (1738-1743)

by Professor Terisio Pignatti, Vice-Directore
Musei Civici Veneziani

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4

A distinction can be made, however, between the styles of the two artists. Bellotto's sharply-defined shaded areas are quite different from Canaletto's more tonal gradations with shadow. His bold, incisive strokes are always darker in tone than Canaletto's. And he used parallel strokes to portray the reflections in the water and the shadows in the sky. On the basis of style of these drawings, it is possible to make the hypothesis that Bellotto was less artistically endowed, less imaginative, more concerned with the exact representation of light, and more impressed with the importance of the accurate graphic representation of architecture, as if his drawing were in preparation for an etching.

Would there be similar differences between paintings attributed to Bellotto and others attributed to Canaletto? The paintings that should be considered are from the end of Bellotto's Venetian period, such as those of Vaprio, Varese or Turin of 1745, or the Venetian scenes that he painted from memory on his first trip to Dresden in 1748. The Porte del Dolo (plate 4), from Dresden, was signed by Bellotto and dated 1748, and had obviously derived from the print that Canaletto had made of the same subject. Bellotto modified it in a way that was very characteristic of his style at the end of his early period. The perspective is widened, producing a theatrical effect; the palace at the back was completely imaginary; ruins were added on the right - evidence of Roman influence. The rendering of light and shadow is very original; the light is radiant and the shadow spreads across the foreground of the painting. Phantom-like figures, reduced to simple outlines, emerge from the shadow and appear against the light. Here and there, the veil of shadow is drawn to reveal small figures illuminated by the incisive rays of cold light as if they were on stage.

The result of these devices is an essential lack of unity. The colour suffers, often strained to give the effects of light, often applied with heavy paint to stand out in the shadows but nevertheless singulary monotonous. This picture seems, in short, like the work of a beginner who, although talented, has by now; left the road he travelled at the beginning - Canaletto's - and is finding his own way of interpreting reality, penetratingly, aggressively, and with light.

Canaletto used light and colour in a different way. If we examine a painting characteristic of these years, such as The Vegetable Market and San Giacometto di Rialto in the National Gallery of Canada (plate 5), we are facing a harmonious masterpiece with restful colours and a relaxed atmosphere. Lights and shadows are delicately blended and the dust-like colour makes the transition infinitely softer in the figures and in the architecture. Canaletto's "reality" was a harmonious environment, somewhat abstracted so that it possesses a light rarified beyond true physical reality.

Bellotto's technique in his early period was very different from Canaletto's. He would start with his uncle's sketch but then sharply outline each detail more incisively. The light became artificial with a cold, almost twilight, bluish tone. He would use strokes of nearly pure hue to strengthen the outlines and the sculptural forms. The human figures consequently look quite solid; they were "constructed" with thick brush strokes of heavy paint not blended as they are in Canaletto's paintings of the same period: the Feast Day of San Rocco in London, The Vegetable Market and San Giacometto di Rialto (plate 6) and Piazza San Marco (plates 7 and 8) from the National Gallery of Canada, and the View of the Zecca in the Carandini Albertini collection (plate 12).

By using this technique, Bellotto reduced the human figures to characteristic forms which are far removed from those of Canaletto's. The features of the faces become simple blots - the eyes and mouths, black, and the noses and wigs, white; these faces can be seen in the View of the Po of 1745 (plate 9) from the Pinacoteca Sabauda in Turin and in the Porte del Dolo from 1748 in Dresden (plate 10). Another characteristic of Bellotto's during this period was the way he depicted buildings. In the Porte del Dolo, the buildings have well-defined outlines, made by parallel brush strokes of colour juxtaposed against the changing rays of light. In the shadows, where light was needed to create volume, a very fine line of cadmium yellow was placed along the edge of arches (plate 11) or between the lighted surface of the cornice and its shadow - a technique that has never been found in Canaletto's work (plate 12). The shading in Bellotto's work has an almost ink-blot type of heaviness, arising from the cold, rather static way in which he rendered light and shade. There is also a chromatic contrast that cannot be seen in Canaletto's work.

These distinctions between Bellotto's early work and Canaletto's could be applied to paintings that have been attributed to Canaletto. If Guarienti's statement that "Bellotto painted in a way that was so similar to Canaletto's that it was difficult to distinguish between the two" be accepted as true, it would not be surprising that such early Bellotto works could be mistaken for Canaletto's. In the Canaletto exhibition in Canada, there were four paintings - The Piazetta Looking South (plate 13) and the Entrance to the Grand Canal (plate 14) from the collection of J. M. Mills, and the Piazetta Looking North (plate 15) and The Arsenal (plate 16) from the National Gallery of Canada (11) - that did seem to fit in with other paintings by Canaletto such as the Feast Day of San Rocco from the National Gallery in London, or The Vegetable Market and San Giacometto di Rialto (plate 5) and Piazza San Marco (plate 8) from the National Gallery of Canada.

These paintings obviously belonged to a single series. They not only had the same tonality - the blue silver characteristic of Bellotto - but also the same size (59" x 48", varying, if at all, by no more than 1/2."). In addition, the Venetian subjects are so complementary that it seems they must have been painted simultaneously for a formal setting - a palace or a hall. Little is known about the history of these works before the nineteenth century; (12) they have, however, always been attributed to Canaletto because of their remarkable quality: they are clear, bright and, particularly in the dotting of the small figures here and there, extraordinarily vivacious.

The fact that it has been difficult to fit them into Canaletto's oeuvre could be noticed in the arrangement of these paintings in the Montreal showing of the Canadian exhibition. The two Mills canvases were placed near the Piazza San Marco (plate 8) from the National Gallery of Canada, which the eminent authority, W. G. Constable, dates prior to 1735, (13) whereas in their contrast of light and shadow they would have been more at home with Canaletto's work from 1730, with, for example, the authentic Windsor canvases. (14) On the other hand the two canvases from the National Gallery of Canada were placed close to the Gallery's Vegetable Market and San Giacometto di Rialto (plate 5), which is dated between 1740 and 1746, perhaps because they are somewhat clearer and more luminous.

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