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Canaletto and the Art of Venice: Exhibition on Screen

By Joseph R. Phelan*

Last month in these pages, I interviewed Phil Grabsky, the filmmaker behind theExhibition on Screen” series of documentaries shown in movie theaters around the world. Based upon landmark art exhibitions, the latest season opens with “Canaletto and the Art of Venice,” a high-definition celebration of one of the most beautiful cities on earth and the dazzling artist who depicted its canals, palaces, churches and famous spectacles in his canvases.

Any lover of Venice or Canaletto should not miss this film which screens for only two performances on January 21st and 23rd at the Avalon Theatre just south of Chevy Chase Circle, at 5612 Connecticut Avenue NW.

Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), known as Canaletto, is a familiar name to Washington art lovers and museum goers. The National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection includes five oil paintings and over 100 etchings, and as recently as 2011, the Gallery showcased some of his very best work along with those of his fellow view painters in “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals.

However, while this artist is well represented in American collections, the greatest gathering of his work is in the British Royal Collection which owns 50 masterpieces in oil and 150 drawings. So, the film also discloses the fascinating story of how these works were acquired by the young King George III in the years before the American War for Independence.

The Grand Tour

In the 18th century, young English aristocrats undertook extensive travels on the continent to complete their education. “The great object of travel,” according to Dr. Samuel Johnson was “to see the shores of the Mediterranean. . . . All our religion, all our arts, almost all that sets us above the savages, has come from the shores of the Mediterranean.” Future leaders were expected to have firsthand experience of the art and architecture, the religion and culture, which constituted the roots of Western civilization.

While the Venice could not compete with Rome for ancient ruins, the city could more than hold its own when it came to art and architecture: masterpieces by Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese could be seen in situ and the influential villas, churches and palaces of Palladio were to be found throughout the city and its environs.

On the political level, the Most Serene Republic – as it was called — was highly esteemed for its longevity, stability and political liberty which were attributed in large part to its republican constitution. Its great wealth and power were based on trade, as it was the principal point of contact between western and northern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.

Though in a slow decline due the discovery of new trade routes around Africa and to the Americas, and the growth of the Ottoman Empire to the east, the republic still offered important lessons for astute British observers who were in the process of building their own maritime empire.

Even as Venice declined in power and wealth, tourism increased. The many hedonistic delights of Venice — festivals, theaters and masked carnivals — were at their peak. The staging of opera was a thriving part of the city’s cultural scene. Venice had 19 opera houses, and the opera season coincided with Carnival. Both took place from St. Stephen’s Day on  December 26th until the beginning of Lent. Along with carnival and opera, Venice was also well known as the brothel of Europe catering to the most discriminating tastes. In other words, something for everyone!

Canaletto and the Vedutisti

As a result, British tourists sought artistic souvenirs of their visit. To meet this demand there arose a new genre, the “view” painting, a topographical accurate picture of the famous locales along the Grand Canal such as St Mark’s Cathedral and the Doge’s Palace. Canaletto’s father, a scenic designer for the ubiquitous opera companies, taught his talented son the rudiments of set design. On a trip with his father to Rome to paint scenery, Canaletto fell in love with the architecture and ruins of the “Eternal City.” Once back in Venice, the son chose not to follow his father as an opera designer, but rather to set up shop in the manner of the leading cityscape painter, Luca Carlevarijs.

Within a few years, agents for British collectors were being told to stop buying Carlevarijs, and to begin acquiring Canaletto because “you can see the sun shining in his paintings.” It’s worth pointing out, as one of the art historians does in the film, that Canaletto’s work is never simply a photographic transcription of what he sees in front of him, but rather an imaginative recreation. A highpoint of the film for me is a sequence at Windsor Palace where we are offered an expert commentary of how the artist transformed two preparatory drawing of the Piazza San Marco into finished paintings by making changes to the topography for the sake of compositional clarity and drama.

Joseph Smith, George III, and the Royal Collection

Most of Canaletto’s paintings were commissioned through Joseph Smith (ca. 1674-1770), a merchant banker who had lived in Venice since around 1700, and who was appointed British Consul in 1744. Smith was a friend and patron of many leading artists, and his palazzo on the Grand Canal was frequented by the British nobility passing through the city. His international contacts and his talents as a businessman made him the ideal agent for an artist.

Smith first met Canaletto in the early 1720s, and quickly spotted his potential. Their relationship developed into an unofficial partnership of mutual benefit, and a friendship that was to last for over 40 years. Smith acted as Canaletto’s agent, liaising between artist and patron, handling payments and shipping works to Britain. At the same time Smith commissioned many paintings from Canaletto for his own collection, such as the series of 12 paintings of the Grand Canal that promoted his work to the many visitors Smith received in his palazzo.

Smith also supported Canaletto in more difficult times: in the 1740s the War of the Austrian Succession disrupted the steady stream of visitors to Venice, and as the artist’s workload declined, Smith commissioned a series of monumental views of Rome. In 1746 Smith arranged for Canaletto to travel to Britain, where he stayed for almost 10 years between 1746 and 1755, a fascinating period in the artist’s career in which his most successful work presented London as Venice, and the Thames as the Grand Canal.

Over the years Smith himself amassed a fine collection, including around 50 paintings and 150 drawings by Canaletto. He also collected work by Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Francesco Zuccarelli, Rosalba Carriera, Pietro Longhi and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta — all of which are included in the exhibition and the film.

But Smith’s finances suffered during the European wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and in 1762 George III bought Smith’s magnificent library (including his volumes of drawings), and his paintings, gems and coins, for the sum of £20,000. Many of the paintings were sold to furnish the newly-purchased Buckingham House; his volumes of drawings were placed in the Royal Library, where they have remained ever since.

I was going to close by saying the film offers us the next best thing to a visit to Venice or London but in many ways the experience is uniquely designed for contemporary audiences. In 90 minutes one can enjoy a gorgeous travelogue, expert commentary and high definition images, a Grand Tour for busy 21st viewers. And if you miss the screening you can look to an encore presentation and the DVD.

*Joseph R. Phelan is a Washington based author and teacher. He is the founding editor of, the fine art search engine. He has taught at the Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland University College.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joseph R. Phelan. All rights reserved.