Feature

Exhibit of the week: Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals

The fierce competition among Venetian painters was fueled partly by 18th-century Englishmen who paid well for high-end scenic mementos.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Through May 30

Is Canaletto underrated? asked Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. The National Gallery’s “feast” of a show takes pains to make that case. When seen in the company of 18th-century Venetian peers whose work “reveled in dimpled flesh, swirling fabrics, and ecstasies both religious and erotic,” the artist born Giovanni Antonio Canal can appear meek, even servile. His subdued urban vistas, known for their “meticulously rendered architectural details and rather sedate surfaces,” were “essentially high-end souvenirs” created for Venice’s growing tourist market. But when his work hangs beside that of other vedutisti, or view painters, as it does here, Canaletto’s genius is “easier to detect.”

His rivals were no slouches, said Sophie Gilbert in Washingtonian.com. They couldn’t afford to be: The stakes were too high. For that, you can thank the Brits, whose insatiable appetite for scenic mementos kept the vedutisti on their toes. If uppity 18th-century Englishmen “hadn’t taken so much pleasure in bragging about their travel experiences, there might not have been such fierce competition” to capture the perfect view. While Canaletto often surpassed the rest of the field, his peers, too, sometimes rose to the challenge. In one particularly striking comparison, a work by his rival Bernardo Bellotto shows far “more depth and flair” than a similar work by Canaletto, which has a “finicky” obsession with details that renders it “oddly soulless and two-dimensional, like a paint-by-numbers version of Venice.”

This show’s “mouthwatering focus on artistic infighting” makes it especially memorable, said Jessica Dawson in The Washington Post. Viewers are invited into an irresistible art-world soap opera, starring cutthroat rivals “eager to outclass each other in style and better each other in price.” Comely views of the Piazza San Marco fetched a tidy sum, so other painters followed suit. When one artist figured out that special events—a regatta, a dignitary’s visit—brought even bigger paydays, the competition quickly jumped onto the limited-edition bandwagon. By the 1730s, Canaletto had risen above the fray, and he was invited to England to fulfill a series of hefty multiwork commissions. During his decade in England, rivals exploited his absence by copying his style and talking up his weaknesses. When he finally returned to Venice,  competitors tsk-tsked about “his fading brand.” Chances are, the master would have done the same himself.

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