Canaletto's "View of the Entrance to the Arsenal"

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The 240th anniversary of the death of Giovanni Antonio Canal was earlier this month, on April 19th. Canaletto, as he was known, was a well-known, well-paid, and prolific 18th century Venetian painter who specialized in view paintings (vedute). "View of the Entrance to the Arsenal," painted in 1732, is one of Canaletto's many paintings focused on the Venetian canals.

1. Giovanni Antonio Canal got his start as an apprentice with his brother and his father, a theatrical scene painter. During a stay in Rome, though, Canaletto became "irritated by the immodesty of the playwrights" and "formally foreswore the theatre." He then studied under Luca Carlevaris, an urban cityscapes painter, and is said by many to have surpassed his teacher's skills.

2. Unlike many artists of the time, Canaletto painted his early works from nature, out at the sites themselves, instead of in a studio. He also used a camera obscura to help with his highly detailed topographical paintings. The impact of the camera obscura is seen in the distant objects in Canaletto's paintings, which just appear as out-of-focus blobs of color.

3. Canaletto's paintings are noted for their photographic qualities, but they were not completely accurate representations. According to the late J.G. Links, Canaletto had a tendency to mix viewpoints and move buildings in order to create the most impressive spectacle possible. In "View of the Entrance to the Arsenal," the two towers are farther apart than they were in his preparatory composition.

4. Most of Canaletto's customers were Englishmen, who often bought Canaletto's vedute in bulk, 15 to 20 at a time. In the 1740s, though, English visits to Venice declined as a result of the War of the Austrian Succession, and so Canaletto's sales suffered. In 1746, Canaletto relocated to London, where he stayed for nine years painting views of London, including Eaton College, Westminster Bridge (new at the time), and castles.

5. While in London, Canaletto's painting became more mechanical and somewhat repetitive, leading to rumors that he wasn't actually Canaletto, but an impostor. The artist gave public painting demonstrations to refute the rumors but, during his lifetime, his reputation never fully recovered.

6. An Italianized English merchant, Joseph Smith, both collected Canaletto's works and acted as an agent for the artist. Smith was one of the greatest collectors of the day and, even before he began collecting Canaletto, had "the most important collection of modern art to be found in Venice." In addition to his impressive art collection, Smith also had a library full of rare literary volumes, as he was a financial backer of the most important publisher of Enlightenment authors (including Voltaire and John Locke) in Venice. Smith's collection of Canalettos included 53 paintings and 140 drawings, most of which he sold to George III and which now reside in the Royal Collection in England.

A larger version of "View of the Entrance to the Arsenal" is available here. Galleries of Canaletto's works are available from the Web Gallery of Art and the Art Renewal Center.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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April 29, 2008 - 11:31am
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