If you have never been to Venice (or if you have), a trip to the National Gallery of Art and its new “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals” exhibit is a grand substitute.
Gathered from 25 museums and private collections around the world, including that of Queen Elizabeth II, the show features 55 works by 18th-century artists who portrayed varying perspectives of scenes in and around Venice.
At first glance, so many Venice portraits may seem repetitive, but under closer scrutiny and with a quick education furnished at the exhibit, the mysteries and competition between the artists, their lives and subject matter reveal intrigue, differences and similarities of each, becoming more compelling and necessitating additional visits to the show.
A romantic city, a beautiful city, a city of allure, Venice is more or less the same now as it was then says the exhibit’s 14-minute film.
At the show’s portal is a 19th-century gondola used in Venice by, among others, American painter Thomas Moran (1837-1926) who claimed poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had owned it. After a trip to Venice in 1890, Moran moved the gondola to his Long Island home, and it’s presently on loan to the Venice exhibition from the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, the current owner.
Canaletto, whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Canal, was born in 1697, the son of a painter. When only a teenager, Canaletto began his career as a theatrical painter, and upon discovery that he could satisfy wealthy European tourists who traveled to Venice on the Grand Tour desiring to purchase scenes and landscapes of the city, he changed his subject matter.
He and his fellow artists were vedute or view painters who created masterpieces with ultimate precision and detail, often using a camera obscura, the forerunner of the camera, to make their subjects more realistic. (Two examples may be seen at the exhibit.)
Marketing was critical to their success. The early death at age 32 of one of Canaletto’s keenest competitors, Michele Marieschi, eliminated him as a rival, but there were plenty of others including Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew, to require constant refinement of the product. (Be sure and compare Canaletto’s and Bellotto’s paintings of The Torre di Maighera, The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking East, with Santa Maria della Salute (Canaletto’s 1741 rendition) and The Campo Santa Maria Formosa, as well as many others at the exhibit.)
Joseph Smith, a wealthy British patron, commissioned several works by Canaletto whose peak is generally considered to have occurred in the mid-1730s. Political and military events, namely, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), upended the gilded era of Venice vedute painting by reducing the number of tourists who could safely travel to Venice and buy art. Demand for scenes shrunk, and in 1746 Canaletto moved to Britain where he lived for nine years. There he was generally unable to successfully copy his Venetian style to adequately satisfy a constituency which desired scenes of British buildings and castles.
He returned to Venice where he continued to paint until his death in 1768.
Almost 30 years later, the Venetian Republic surrendered to Napoleon’s forces, ending the period of Venetian vedute art.
Having already visited the exhibit is the Italian ambassador, His Excellency Guilio Terzi di Sant’Agata, who saw it with Diana Bracco, president of the Bracco Foundation, a major sponsor.
The show was organized by the National Gallery of Art and the National Gallery, London (where it has already been exhibited) with “generous support” of the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation and additional support by Sally Engelhard Pingree and The Charles Engelhard Foundation. Charles Beddington was the guest curator.
Since 1941 when it opened, the National Gallery of Art has hosted 80 Italian exhibits, according to the National Gallery’s director, Earl A. Powell, III.
“Venice” is part of the National Gallery’s and D.C.’s festival “La Dolce DC,” and the U.S.’s dedication of Italy@150, which celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification with lectures, music, film, other exhibits, Shakespeare, fashion shows, special menus and all things cultural.
Mark Memorial Day weekend on your calendar, for that’s the closing of the show and you’ll want to see it long before the crowds descend at the last moment.
What: “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals”
When: Now through May 30, 2011 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sunday
Where: The East Wing, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Metro station: Navy Memorial-Archives or walk from Gallery Place or Federal Triangle or ride the Circulator for only one dollar.
For more exhibit information: (202) 737-4215