(Queen’s Gallery, London, until 12 November 2017)
In 1762, the young George III purchased en bloc the collection of Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice. In doing so, he became at one stroke the owner of the greatest collection of Canaletto paintings and drawings in the world. These works have been in the Royal Collection ever since and now, gloriously, they’re brought together in a stunning exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, offering an abundance of Venetian delights. All in all, if you have any fondness for Venetian splendour, you must not miss this show.
For many years, I confess I thought Canaletto rather monotonous – the legacy of a childhood spent visiting National Trust houses, each of which had its ten-a-penny view of the Grand Canal. But this show displays the master at his most scintillating, his most adventurous: it not only offers a tremendously clear picture of his working process and artistic development, but also places him in the context of his age.
Joseph Smith wasn’t just a British diplomat: he was also an avid connoisseur and, during his time in Venice, he supported and promoted those artists who caught his eye. He was Canaletto’s most important patron, commissioning series of views from the artist which he then displayed in his Venetian residence at Palazzo Balbi on the Grand Canal. Smith’s home was a popular meeting place for Venetian and expat society, as well as a resort for men of letters who came to consult his admirable library. Visitors could admire the pictures hanging on Smith’s wall, leaf through his albums of Canaletto’s drawings, and choose compositions which they wanted copied for their own homes. When times were hard and commissions dried up from other sources, Smith funded Canaletto to travel elsewhere to paint: to Rome, where he turned out a breathtaking series of views of ancient monuments; and to London (his views from Somerset House along the Thames are also in the Royal Collection, but not in the exhibition, which focuses on Italian views).
Meeting Smith must have been a dream come true for Canaletto. He had been born into an artistic family and had been trained by his father, a scene-painter for the theatre. In the early years of the 18th century, Venice was famous for its theatrical extravagance, especially around carnival time when the opera season burst into full flow. A section of this show nods to the vibrant energy of this genre: there’s a drawing by Marco Ricci showing a splendid palace with arches supported by monumental caryatids, which was probably a set for Nicola Porpora’s Siface of 1726. I was thrilled also to see some of the Royal Collection’s caricatures of opera singers, again by Ricci: the castrato Nicolino as a bulbous figure beseeching the gaunt, indifferent Lucia Facchinelli; and the skinny, buck-toothed Farinelli. The theatrical world was always busy: there was plenty of work for scene-painters, but it was regarded as an inferior profession and the young Canaletto hankered after a more admirable career as a view-painter.
But, knowing where Canaletto came from, you see that he remains acutely conscious of the need for a good ‘set’. His paintings of the Grand Canal open out vistas, straighten curves and sometimes replace dull buildings with more interesting ones, all done to delight the eye. His Canal is broad, busy and vibrant. When I first visited Venice, I remember being startled by how small the Grand Canal was, how narrow: my idea of Venice had been influenced by Canaletto’s generous proportions. And sometimes his set-painter’s legacy is even more obvious. Look at the Capriccio with a monumental staircase, a relatively late drawing from the end of the 1750s. Here we see a fantasy garden, meant to lie somewhere towards the end of the Riva degli Schiavoni (you can see the Dogana and the Salute on the right-hand side). It’s dominated by a grand staircase which rises up to a sharply-receding, extravagantly ornamental loggia. Canaletto could never resist the perspective of a sequence of receding arches, but here things are taken to extremes. It would make a superb backcloth for an opera scene.
Part of the reason I enjoyed the show so much is that drawings and prints are given plenty of space. There is a whole section about printing in Venice, showing how artists like Canaletto and Tiepolo experimented with etching as a way to publicise their work and to create demand for published sets of views. There’s also a group of chiaroscuro woodcuts made after Parmigianino by Anton Maria Zanetti, who revived this neglected technique to take advantage of its colouristic possibilities; and similar woodcuts created by the innovative British printmaker John Baptist Jackson, which reproduced Venetian Renaissance paintings on a grand scale. Venetian publishing also receives attention, largely in relation to the Pasquali Press, which Joseph Smith himself founded in the 1730s, and which became renowned for publishing the works of challenging, controversial thinkers, such as Newton and Voltaire.
The Royal Collection’s drawings offer such a comprehensive view of Canaletto’s career that you come to understand his working process in a way that would just be impossible anywhere else. He would first make broad, brisk sketches in pencil that, back in the studio, he would work up in pen and ink. Often these very first pen drawings are dynamically unfettered, the sky scribbled in, the figures as swirling blobs. These free studies would then serve as inspiration for later, more finished drawings. In these more careful works, infrared photography has revealed careful ruled underdrawing, which establishes the positions of the uprights of buildings and chimneys, and often continues down into the water to help with the placement of reflections. If you look closely at the drawings, you can often see the faint pencil lines with the naked eye.
But Canaletto didn’t stop there. The hang helps you to see how he sometimes experimented with a composition in two different styles: once with pure pen and ink; and then again with the outlines in pen and the tone added by fluid grey wash. The compositions remained absolutely identical: in two views of The Libreria and Molo, for example, you can see how the figure groups are the same in both drawings, simply treated in a different way. To add a slightly nerdy note, I was also fascinated to see how his line developed over the course of his career. His earliest pen drawings are jagged, full of nervous energy (see San Marco and the Piazza looking east of 1723-4) but, by 1745, he’s adopted a beautifully loose, swooping line with a thicker pen nib: figures and architectural details are enlivened by jaunty little loops (see The Piazza looking north-east from the Procuratie Nuove). Yet this can be combined with exquisitely accurate detail, such as that visible in his view of The Campanile under Repair (c.1745), where a builder’s platform is winched up the side of the tower to repair damage caused by a direct lightning strike.
A similar development is visible in the paintings. Handily, you can follow Canaletto’s growth as a painter through a single series of views of the Grand Canal, dating from 1722 to the mid-1730s. Even in this time he blossomed, from the rather cautious, staged, flat painting of The Canale di Santa Chiara (c.1722) to the livelier Mouth of the Grand Canal (c.1730), where the water sparkles with waves, the receding buildings are crisply defined with their windows and balconies, and the jumble of boats gives life to the view. The two final works in the series are larger festival views, both dazzling: the Regatta on the Grand Canal (c.1734) shows an artist of supreme confidence, whose figures are dabbed in with touches of paint which magically become a bauta mask or a cap; and whose gondolas bear plumes created from feathered wisps of paint.
It’s as if Canaletto learned, over the years, that it was all right to be exuberant. Compare also his early Crossing of San Marco (c.1725), with its sober, shadowed vaults, to the later Nave of San Marco (c.1756), where the Basilica’s golden mosaics dazzle in the sunlight (I wondered if Canaletto had been looking at Bellini’s shimmering half-domes). But perhaps the most astonishing painting, or at least the one that held me captive longest, was the Grand Canal with the Salute (c.1742-3), which I used to open this post. The canal scene itself is lovely but doesn’t stand out from Canaletto’s others: the true glory is the painting of the Salute itself. Crammed into the right-hand side of the painting, the church towers over its surroundings, its facade a riot of columns and warm brown stone. Images do not do this justice: it’s a tour-de-force of architectural painting, almost photographic in its attention to detail. I obviously have a soft spot for Canaletto’s work of c.1742 because I also loved his Roman views from this date, which are displayed as a dazzling sequence in five matching golden frames at the end of the main gallery. In many ways these are standard Grand Tour pictures: the crumbling ruins; the gangs of smart young men pointing eloquently at the decrepit past… but Canaletto handles the light in such a way, and on such a scale, that you can’t help but admire them.
I have, predictably, run on about Canaletto for too long. But the whole point of the show is that it isn’t just Canaletto. Yes, he’s the one who makes the greatest impression, but the curators also include a delicious selection of works by other artists patronised by Smith. I should perhaps explicitly say that everything in this exhibition – all these wonderful Venetian visions – are from the Royal Collection. Nothing has been brought in on loan. It’s on occasions like this that you truly understand how rich a resource it is, and how lucky we are that these works are sent out on loan, or made available to the public.
In the final gallery, you are enveloped by Canaletto’s contemporaries: Sebastiano Ricci, with his loose pen-and-wash drawings, or his glamorous, towering paintings; Antonio Visentini, whose views look rather staid and polite after Canaletto’s glamour; and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, one of my favourite draughtsmen, represented here by a bevy of black-chalk heads. Look at the spontaneity of the Boy with a puppy, or the thoughtful calm of the Mathematician. I was impressed by a very charming Pietro Longhi, showing a game of Blind Man’s Buff, which feels more individual and elegant than his usual Venetian genre scenes. And then of course there’s Rosalba Carriera, wonderful Rosalba, with her four Seasons, chief among whom is flirtatious Winter, holding a fur wrap precariously over her breasts. Unsurprisingly, it was one of Smith’s favourite pictures and there was great demand for copies from other English gentlemen. While conserving Winter ready for the exhibition, the Royal Collection discovered that this coyly-smiling girl had a charming secret: tucked into the back of the stretcher was a little print of The Three Magi, a talisman added by the devout Carriera herself to protect the pastel on its journey to its new owner.
It’s a beautifully put-together show and just the right size. If you have the chance to see it, please do make an effort, because it’s a ravishing exhibition both in quality and scope – celebrating both Canaletto as painter and Joseph Smith as collector and agent. The catalogue is to the Royal Collection’s usual high standard, with essays and entries, fine reproductions and a satisfying scholarly heft (yet with an appealingly low price tag). If your feet lead you to London in the next six months, make a detour to Buckingham Palace to savour these vivid, irresistible works. You won’t regret it.