Unprecedented insights into an inscrutable master - Canaletto and the Art of Venice, review

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 Canaletto The Mouth of the Grand Canal looking West towards the Carità, c.1729–30, from a set of 12 paintings of the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Mouth of the Grand Canal looking West towards the Carità, c.1729–30, from a set of 12 paintings of the Grand Canal Credit: Royal Collection Trust

Canaletto is one of the most popular – and derided – of artists. Yes, he provides the defining views of a city everybody loves, with their glittering ceremonial barges, darting gondolas and iconic buildings rendered with near-photographic precision. But this sheer technical mastery can appear to become bland and monotonous: whether he’s painting le Marche or Middlesex, the pearly light, egg-shell blue skies and level of meticulously rendered detail have a slightly numbing uniformity, making him, for some, the ultimate in chocolate box art.

But how many people in either camp have given much thought to the man behind the art, or the way it developed? Even to admirers, Canaletto can appear an inscrutable figure.

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco looking East towards the Basilica and the Campanile, c.1723–4 , part of a set of six views of Venice Credit: Royal Collection Trust

This sumptuous array of 18th-century Venetian art, which promises Canaletto’s “greatest works”, may not provide a hugely developed sense of Antonio Giovanni Canal as a human being, but it certainly offers a more complex and contradictory view of his art.

Everything here is from the vast collection of Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice, which was eventually acquired by George III. Facilitating Canaletto’s connections with the British “grand tourists” who were his principle customers, Smith helped create a lucrative Canalettist industry, with many imitators working in a style barely distinguishable from the master himself.

Marco Ricci, Caprice View with Roman Ruins, c. 1729 Credit: Royal Collection Trust

While the paintings by other artists are passably interesting – Poussinesque landscapes by the slightly earlier Marco Ricci, sugary pastel portraits by Rosalba Carreira and imposing but slightly empty religious scenes by Sebatiano Ricci – this is really Canaletto’s show. And, from the large selection of drawings that opens the exhibition, he reveals the diverse aspects of his artistic personality. On the one hand, we are shown meticulously measured perspective views of classic Venetian scenes; on the other, spontaneous, almost impressionistic depictions of the same scenes, in furious flurries of pen-strokes, which contrast strongly with the tightly controlled Canaletto of popular perception.

Rosalba Carriera, 'Winter', c. 1726 Credit: Royal Collection Trust

Canaletto started out as a theatrical scene painter, and, while his paintings may appear topographically faithful to the last brick, Canaletto, like the crafty set designer he was, thought nothing of moving buildings and whole stretches of canals and shifting perspectives to create a more pleasing view or incorporate all the elements required by a client.

The atmospheric Colleoni Monument in a Capriccio Setting, in which the famous equestrian statue by Andrea Verrocchio is seen not in its actual crowded canal-side setting, but in a romantically ruinous landscape, is an example of a genre Canaletto mastered in contrast to his popular urban views: the capriccio, in which the artist was encouraged to give free rein to his imagination in merging the real and the fantastical.

Roman views by Canaletto at Canaletto & the Art of Venice Credit: Geoff Pugh

Two other exquisite examples, of families going about their daily tasks amid Roman ruins, are very freely painted in comparison with his carefully organised architectural scenes, the play of evening light captured in thickly-laden lateral brushstrokes. In these paintings, the figures are organically integrated into the landscape, while in later Venetian views such as Courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale, the imposing geometry of the buildings comes first and the figures are very obviously dropped in – as in an architectural projection – giving a sense of expedient, factory-like production.

The most revealing paintings here are 12 views of the Grand Canal, created to provide prototypes for commissions from British clients. Technically immaculate, they’re intriguing as a sort of game in how many variations you can create from the same elements – palaces, gondolas, bridges, water – but they’re hardly emotionally involving.

More powerful are five large and relatively early views of St Mark’s Square, seen from dramatic low angles, with the sense of a storm brewing in the romantically charged evening light. A series of later views of Rome, however, look majestic from a distance, but up close have a flat, colour-by-numbers quality that represents Canaletto at his most formulaic.

Canaletto, The Pantheon, 1742, part of a set of five Roman views Credit: Royal Collection Trust

While I would question whether this represents the “greatest” of Canaletto – there’s an arguably more substantial selection nearby at the National Gallery – you’re left with a richer and more diverse sense of the artist than in any previous exhibition I’ve seen. If the overall impression is of genius stymied by commercial pressures, his last majestic view towards St Mark’s, with the church of the Salute looming in massive close-up, suggests he managed to remain interested in the essential views of la Serenissima right up to the end.

Canaletto and the Art of Venice is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Nov 12; 0303 123 7301; royalcollection.org.uk