Your Collection at the NGC: Canaletto and Guardi


Canaletto, Saint Mark’s and the Clock Tower, Venice (c. 1735–37), oil on canvas, 132.8 x 165.1 cm. NGC

During the 18th century tourists flocked to cities across Continental Europe as part of the Grand Tour. Although often an excuse to travel in search of pleasure and novelty, for many the Grand Tour was also meant as an educational experience, introducing unformed youth and tourists to the cultural riches of places such as Florence, Dresden, and Paris.

No Grand Tour was complete without a stop in Venice — especially if that stop could be timed to coincide with the flirtations and assignations that characterized Carnevale. Masqued balls, routs and romantic rendezvous were synonymous with the city known as the Queen of the Adriatic, and the genteel sons and sometimes daughters of wealthy British families often enjoyed a bit of a flutter in Venice before settling down.

Visitors to Gallery C207 at the National Gallery of Canada will find themselves surrounded by seven landscapes evoking Venice during the Grand Tour. Among these, two paintings by Canaletto and three by Guardi depict the squares, canals and palaces of Venice in the halcyon days before Europe changed forever.

One of the most interesting things about Canaletto — an artist synonymous with scenes of Venice — is that so few of his paintings are left in the city he called home. Most of his paintings were produced, oddly enough, as tourist souvenirs, commissioned or purchased with the same intention as today’s tourists buy picture postcards.

Giovanni Antonio Canal was born in Venice in 1697, at a time when the city was still a republic. His father, Bernardo Canal, was also a painter, hence Giovanni’s nickname “Canaletto” (“Little Canal”). He apprenticed first with his father, who was primarily a painter of theatrical backdrops and scenery. By his early twenties, however, Canaletto had surpassed both his father and subsequent painting masters, and had begun making a name for himself as a painter of sun-drenched depictions of his hometown. 

In the 1720s, Englishman Joseph Smith became Canaletto’s agent, carving out a strong niche market among British collectors. For nearly two decades, Canaletto enjoyed considerable success, and his work from this period remains the most highly sought after to this day. His popularity also drove up prices and demand. Unfortunately, the demand eventually caused his work to suffer, and he was accused of producing paintings that were both repetitive and mechanical. His reputation ensured, nonetheless, that he remained popular, particularly in Britain, and King George III is said to have owned some fifty Canalettos.

In the 1740s, the War of the Austrian Succession seriously disrupted the Grand Tour and tourists to the Continent slowed to a trickle. As a result, in 1746 Canaletto decided to move to London, where he would be closer to his most loyal market. He was based in England until 1755, churning out paintings of his patrons’ palatial homes. He also painted many scenes of London and its bridges, once causing Victorian critic John Ruskin — admittedly an ardent booster of J.M.W. Turner — to pronounce that when Canaletto painted water, the “streams and maligned sea hiss with shame.” It was a cruel and perhaps unwarranted putdown of a man whose early Venice scenes dazzle with sparkling canals and an obvious mastery of light.

The two paintings on display at the Gallery are from two different periods in Canaletto’s life. Saint Mark’s and the Clock Tower, Venice (c. 1735–37) is a street scene from a set of four vedute (“views”) produced for wealthy British landowner William Hollbech, who chose the works for his home in Warwickshire. The Piazza San Marco is virtually empty, suggesting perhaps early morning or late afternoon. Shafts of sunlight illuminate the façades of several buildings, and there is a subtle roseate glow in the clouds. It was the kind of pleasing work tailor-made for British buyers of the time, who tended to favour bucolic, peaceful scenes. Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have called the Piazza San Marco “the finest drawing room in Europe” — a huge living room with the sky as its ceiling, evoking its majestic scale and the convivial lives of its occupants.

Canaletto, The Campo di Rialto and the Church of Saint James, Venice (c. 1740–60), oil on canvas, 118.5 x 128.8 cm. NGC

The other work, The Campo di Rialto and the Church of Saint James, Venice (c. 1740–60) was likely produced later in the artist’s career. Depicting the city’s commercial hub, it is another relatively pleasant peaceful scene featuring vendors either setting up shop or preparing to go home for the evening. Presented as an almost “you were here” scene, it would no doubt have caused envy among viewers back home who had been unable to make the Grand Tour themselves.

In later life, Canaletto was often criticized, and even accused of not being the “real” Canaletto. At one point, he was even forced to give a public demonstration of his technique to prove that he could indeed paint.

Moving back to Venice in 1755, Canaletto spent the rest of his life in that city. He was elected to the Venetian Academy in 1763, and continued to paint until his death in 1768 — often, creating new compositions from old sketches to astonishingly good effect.

Most Canalettos are, as one might expect, housed in private collections, museums and galleries in the United Kingdom or are scattered across North America, along with a few more in Europe. But Canaletto remains by and large a British institution, and few of his paintings can be found anywhere in Italy.

Located in the same gallery, three works by Francesco Guardi present similar views of Venice, but in a very different style. Although the compositions owe something to Canaletto, the brushwork is much less precise, and the artist’s treatment of light is not nearly as refined. Unlike Canaletto, who sought to reproduce a faithful likeness of Venice views, Guardi was more interested in expressing a personal vision.

Francesco Guardi, The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1780–85), oil on canvas, 71.1 x 94.9 cm. NGC

Considered one of the last practitioners of classical Venetian painting, Francesco Guardi was born in 1712, fifteen years after Canaletto. His was a noble family, and his father Domenico and brothers Nicolò and Gianantonio were also painters. His sister Maria Cecilia, moreover, married Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), considered one of the greatest painters of 18th-century Europe.

Like Canaletto, Guardi painted landscapes and streetscapes, and was clearly influenced by Canaletto’s compositions and use of light. Unlike Canaletto, he lacked the older artist’s accuracy and precision. Seen together with the Canalettos in the same room, the three Guardis — The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1780–85), The Dogana, Venice (c. 1780–89) and The Piazzetta, Venice (c. 1780–89) — seem less polished.

Guardi died in Venice in 1793, at a time when Europe beginning to feel the full effect of the French Revolution, along with wars and rumours of wars. Unlike Canaletto’s sunny precision, Guardi’s work suggests a darker reality: murky street scenes under louring skies, and an almost feverish quality. It is a quality that suggests an urgent need to capture the world before it could change yet again — morphing into something Canaletto would likely not have recognized or understood, but which Guardi and those who followed would come to know all too well.

Saint Mark’s and the Clock Tower, Venice and The Campo di Rialto and the Church of Saint James, Venice by Canaletto, and The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, The Dogana, Venice and The Piazzetta, Venice by Guardi are all on view in Gallery C207 at the National Gallery of Canada. For lovers of all things Venice, stay tuned for NGC Magazine's feature on the Canada Pavilion presentation of work by artist Geoffrey Farmer at La Biennale Di Venezia — 57th International Art Exhibitionin Venice, Italy, on view from May 13 until November 26, 2017.

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