Brits (such as this reviewer) can be blamed for many things, including colonization, Barbour jackets, and Simon Cowell, but a new show at the National Gallery of Art this month might mark our first step toward redemption. If 18th-century tourists hadn't taken so much pleasure in bragging about their travel experiences, and had so much money to spend doing so, there might never have been such fierce competition among Venetian view painters to capture idealized paintings of Venice. And Canaletto, never mind his rivals, might have ended up sketching caricatures on the banks of the Grand Canal like every other struggling artist.
“Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals,” which comes to the National Gallery this week—appropriately enough from the National Gallery in London—compares the most famous and acclaimed Venetian view painter to his contemporaries. If this sounds like rather a raw deal for the rivals (like taking a Big Mac to Bourbon Steak), it isn't necessarily, even though some of the Canalettos in the exhibition (including two lent by Her Majesty the Queen herself) are unmistakably superior. Instead, what comes across is an interesting cross-section of a particular genre of painting—what National Gallery co-curator David Brown describes as “a virtual tour of Venice.”
Canaletto’s rivals—including Luca Carlevarijs, Michele Marieschi, and Canaletto’s own nephew, Bernardo Bellotto—benefit from the fact that the painter’s work can sometimes appear more glorious reproduced on paper than in reality. Up close, the finicky, minute detail of a Canaletto building can make the image appear oddly soulless and two-dimensional, like a paint-by-numbers version of Venice. By contrast, Marieschi’s works, while less precise, can be more atmospheric. And it’s evident in the exhibition that Bellotto’s views of Venice occasionally had more depth and flair than his mentor’s.
Nevertheless, it’s the Canalettos that linger, like sunny, golden, picture-perfect mementos of one of the most picturesque cities in the world. What Canaletto had the ability to capture so well was not just a landscape but a feeling, whether idealized or not.