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Canaletto and the Art of Venice

As the Venice Biennale brings art from more than 100 different countries to Italy, one of the most famous sons of the city will be the subject of an exhibition opening in London on 19 May. Malcolm Cossons talks to co-curator Rosie Razzall

Canaletto and the Art of Venice  at the Queen’s Gallery Buckingham Palace draws on more than 200 paintings, drawings and prints from the holdings of the Royal Collection. Together they give an insight into how Canaletto and his contemporaries presented the allure of Venice to their 18th-century audience.

What is extraordinary is that the works in this exhibition constitute almost the entirety of a single collection, acquired by the young King George III. Here, exhibition co-curator Rosie Razzall, Head of Prints and Drawings at Royal Collection Trust, explains how the origins of this show can be found with one of the 18th century’s greatest patrons of the arts in Venice.

How did the works in this exhibition come to be acquired?

Rosie Razzall: ‘The whole group was bought by George III in 1762 from Consul Joseph Smith, who was a British merchant, trader and dealer living and working in Venice. He had become Canaletto’s main patron and amassed a huge collection of paintings and drawings by the artist, together with works by other Venetian painters such as Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Rosalba Carriera, Francesco Zuccarelli, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and Pietro Longhi.

‘Smith was alive when the negotiations took place, though in his 80s, and as far as he was concerned the sale was a great coup. This is one of the only 18th-century Venetian collections to remain intact, but it is a personal collection; for example, aside from some prints, Smith did not acquire works by Tiepolo, although he was working for lots of European patrons at the time.’

Canaletto, Venice The Central Stretch of the Grand Canal, c. 1734. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
Canaletto, Venice: The Central Stretch of the Grand Canal, c. 1734. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

What was the nature of Smith's relationship with Canaletto?

RR: ‘Smith acted as Canaletto’s agent; he shipped Canaletto’s paintings to Britain; he provided introductions; British tourists would come to see Canaletto’s paintings at his house on the Grand Canal and order their own versions. Smith was instrumental in the success of Canaletto and, we assume, benefited financially, although there are not any records of the exact nature of the association between them.

‘Smith also got a lot of Canaletto’s best paintings for his own collection and seems to have been the only one who was really interested in Canaletto’s drawings, which is why such a number of fine examples are now in the Royal Collection.’

Are there other artists for the public to discover in this exhibition?

RR: ‘Visitors will not perhaps have heard of Rosalba Carriera, who is fascinating. Firstly, she was a female artist, which was unusual for the time, and she also pioneered the technique of pastel.’

Rosalba Carriera, Winter, c. 1726. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
Rosalba Carriera, Winter, c. 1726. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

‘Her works were highly sought after across Europe and Joseph Smith had a huge collection. They were admired for their subtle qualities, their fragility and their delicacy. It will be the first time the four pastels by Carriera in the exhibition [depicting personifications of the Four Seasons] will have been shown in public. That is really exciting.’

It was a discovery to find that Canaletto and his friend Marco Ricci worked as painters of stage scenery. How does that inform the composition of Canalettos's paintings?

RR: ‘We are showing a set of six paintings, which were one of his earliest commissions for Joseph Smith made in about 1723. They are huge — far bigger than Canaletto’s people are perhaps used to seeing in National Trust houses or elsewhere.

Marco Ricci, Caprice View with Roman Ruins, c. 1729. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016
Marco Ricci, Caprice View with Roman Ruins, c. 1729. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

‘These dramatic perspectives were created to be viewed from a distance with strong raking light and theatrical counterbalances. They are painted in pairs and designed to be read together, with the strong weight of architecture on one side or the other. These are things that he had absorbed from his stage training, as is the element, certainly in his early paintings, of adding figures to give a narrative to the scene. This is, perhaps, also something he was used to building up from his early work in the theatre.’

Was 18th-century Venice a centre of artistic innovation, or did it cater to an audience of visitors?

RR: ‘Venice had long been associated with a particular use of colour over strict accuracy in drawing. Venetian painters like Titian and Tinteretto focused on colour, while Roman painters focused on line. That is definitely something that Venetian painters of the 18th century took up, but Canaletto is, in a way, set apart as he is painting specifically for tourists.

‘Venetian families and Venetian collectors were not interested in buying Canaletto. He found that his market was mainly British Grand Tourists wanting a souvenir, so there are two distinct types of painting — those that were native to Venice, and paintings of Venice that were made to take back to Britain.’

Canaletto and the Art of Venice at the Queen’s Gallery Buckingham Palace runs from 19 May to 12 November