Sunday, May 15, 2011

Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through May 30, 2011

During the 18th century, it was fashionable for the wealthy in England to take a "grand tour" of continental Europe, and these trips inevitably included Venice. As photography was not yet available to them, the tourists would purchase paintings of Venice to remind them of their trip, much as today's tourists purchase postcards.

One of the masters of these so-called "view paintings" was Canaletto, and his works and those of others active in this genre make up the content of this show. Outside of the exhibit is a fabulous gondola from the 1800s. Thomas Moran used it in Venice, then had it brought back to the United States. How useful it would have been in Long Island, I don't know, but I'm glad he kept it, as it was great fun to see. Made me want to visit Venice and take a ride!

One of Canaletto's contemporaries said of his work, "You can see the sun shining" in his paintings, and this is, for the most part, correct. His early work did involve overcast skies and scenes outside of the ordinary tourist destinations, but he soon switched to sun-drenched views of the popular buildings and plazas that were more enticing to visitors wishing to purchase a souvenir of their trip. I recently read a book by E.F. Benson entitled Limitations, which dealt with the theme of artists sacrificing their true artistic visions to create work that will sell. Whether Canaletto felt he had "sold out" I have no idea, but one does wonder.

View painters would often forgo authenticity in their paintings in order to create paintings that showed a "better view." A famous building might appear in a painting where, in real life, it would be blocked from view. It occurred to me that when one remembers a trip, one often remembers the best parts of it, and leaves out the tediousness or inconveniences. View paintings allowed the traveler to see Venice as they remembered it, rather than as it really was.

Several paintings by Maneschi, a rival to Canaletto, were on display. Although they painted the same buildings and plazas, Maneschi's work seems more precise, more painstaking to me than Canaletto's. There's almost an impressionistic quality to Canaletto's work, although he pre-dates the Impressionists by about 100 years.

In addition to the paintings of everyday Venice, there were also many pieces depicting special events: feast days, visits by foreign dignitaries, regattas and the like. Not only did the view paintings serve as postcards, they were also souvenirs of formal occasions.

I was delighted to see a painting by Guardi of a building designed by Palladio - a great favorite of mine since I saw a show of his works at the National Building Museum several months ago.

Verdict: Do go see this very large show. You'll have to move quickly to see the whole thing in a lunch hour, but it's a way to visit Venice without leaving DC.

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