by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Old Walton Bridge by Canaletto, c.1754

Canaletto and Guardi at Home and Abroad

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 30 October 1993


No history of 18th-century painting could afford to ignore Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, Venice's most outstanding view painters, yet their status was, and remains, ambiguous. During their lifetimes, religious and history painting reigned supreme, and to be a mere painter of scenes, however inspired and accomplished, smacked of the mechanical. Despite international renown, Canaletto was not elected to Venice's Academy until he was 66. Guardi, whose lowly social background further counted against him, had to wait until he was 72.

And though subsequently both artists were sought after, the critical establishment was indifferent, if not hostile. John Ruskin, England's leading 19th-century art pundit, conducted a lifelong campaign of (in his words) 'determined depreciation' of Canaletto, only experiencing a 'Road to Damascus' conversion shortly before his death.

Now that these artists' pictures are scattered across the globe - many in private collections - this autumn's three excellent, independently conceived exhibitions in London and Birmingham (of Canaletto) and in Venice (of Guardi) offer a simultaneous gathering of their paintings, drawings and engravings on a scale that is unlikely to be repeated for many years.

Born in 1697, Canaletto first assisted his father, Bernardo Canal, a theatrical scene painter, receiving the nickname 'Little Canal' that was to stick for the rest of his life. By his mid-20s, he was painting Venetian scenes, an emerging genre to which he brought an exceptional clarity of vision, sure touch in composition and freshness of color.

He was soon taken up by Joseph Smith, an English merchant and banker who had settled in Venice around 1700. It proved to be an enduring and mutually rewarding artist-patron relationship. Rare was the well-heeled English visitor who left Venice without calling at Smith's palazzo, where the walls were adorned with paintings by Canaletto and others. Smith amassed a huge collection, but by the late 1750s, his business slumped and he was forced to sell his assets.

George III had recently ascended the throne and bought Buckingham House, now Buckingham Palace, for his bride, Queen Charlotte. The problem of furnishing this vast edifice was substantially solved by buying Smith out for £20,000. Over a hundred items from this acquisition, including a dozen superb Canaletto paintings and twice that number of drawings and engravings, are on show in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace in 'A King's Purchase: King George III and the Collection of Consul Smith' (until Dec. 23).

In 1746, Canaletto set out for England in search of new vistas. His nine-year stay is brought to life again in 'Canaletto & England' (until Jan. 4), at the Gas Hall, attached to Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery. Canaletto's London views, unequaled in their skill, panache and power of observation, represent the most complete record by one artist of the capital in the 18th century.

GUARDI, who died 200 years ago, is the subject of 'Francesco Guardi: Views, Caprices, Festivals' at the Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice (until Nov. 21). He was 15 years' Canaletto's junior and, inevitably, grew up under his shadow. The Guardis' poverty exacerbated the tendency of the family workshop (headed, after their father's death, by Francesco's less talented brother Antonio) to copy to satisfy the demands of the market.

Guardi commanded pathetically low prices for his pictures, and thus, far fewer of them survived. A contemporary called his work spirited but inaccurate, yet, as the drawings and paintings in this show reveals, Guardi was an adept draftsman, and the deviations from reality in his compositions are deliberate.

After the death of his older brother in 1760, Guardi's work takes on a new freedom and expressiveness. The strange, ethereal effects he finally achieved remain, paradoxically even in his 'capricci,' or imaginary scenes, firmly rooted in the natural world, capturing aspects of Venice and the lagoon that have eluded other artists.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024