Amongst its array of extraordinary treasures, the Royal Collection contains a dazzling selection of works by Canaletto. Now, this world class collection has been put on public display at the Queen’s Gallery, just opposite Hotel 41. Staging a major Canaletto exhibition in London is a thoughtful nod to the nine years that Venice’s most famous veduta (view) painter spent in England. To celebrate the new exhibition, we spoke to curator Lucy Whitaker on the eternal appeal of the Italian artist, and her favourite pieces in the show.
As a broad opener, where does Canaletto sit within the history of art, and why is he considered such an important artist?
“Canaletto is the most famous topographical artist in the history of art. His views of Venice defined the city for the British and many other nations from the eighteenth century onwards.”
Was Canaletto as well recognised in his day as he is now? What made George III become such a significant collector?
“Yes, if not more famous. George III acquired the collection of Joseph Smith in 1762. Smith was the British Consul in Venice. He collected the work of contemporary artists in Venice but was most interested in acquiring paintings, prints and drawings by Canaletto. Smith also formed an unofficial partnership with Canaletto and negotiated sales to the many British patrons eager to collect Canaletto’s works. Smith’s collection contained more than 50 Canaletto paintings, 142 drawings and a few important etchings, all of which are still in the Royal Collection today.”
What do you think it is about Venice that so captures the imagination?
“The city is so extraordinary, rising as it does from water. It was described at the time as a ‘dream or fairy tale realiz’d’.”
Why was it important for you to stage a major Canaletto exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery?
“Canaletto & the Art of Venice is a fantastic opportunity to show the unparalleled holdings of Canaletto works in the Royal Collection. The exhibition is also the first time since 1981 that two of Canaletto’s finest sets of paintings have been displayed side-by-side. Six views of Venice produced early in the artist’s career in the 1720s will be shown alongside the painter’s series of five Roman views from over 20 years later. Both sets were commissioned from Canaletto by Joseph Smith.”
The exhibition includes several of Canaletto’s contemporaries. Who influenced him, and who did he influence?
“Luca Carlevarijs was Canaletto’s most important predecessor in Venetian view painting. Another important influence was Marco Ricci, who was creating landscapes in much the same way as Canaletto was creating cityscapes. Canaletto influenced all his rivals in view painting – his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, Michele Marieschi and Francesco Guardi, for example. Later artists such as Turner, Sickert and Monet were also influenced by him.”
Canaletto spent nine years in England. How did his art change during the period, and what long-lasting effect did it have?
“Canaletto’s technique and style developed in England, but the most important change in his work was as a result of the different climate, light, landscape and weather conditions and the new subject matter. This included the River Thames, the architecture of London and great houses of the nobility. Canaletto profoundly affected British topographical painting – artists such as Samuel Scott took up his style.”
What are your personal highlights from the exhibition? If you could take one work home with you, which one would it be?
“That’s a very difficult choice. The Piazza San Marco looking East towards the Basilica and the Campanile from the San Marco set of six paintings has the drama and freedom of Canaletto’s early work. Or, very different in scale and effect, The Crossing of San Marco looking to the North Transept on Good Friday, which shows Canaletto’s extraordinary skill at manipulating paint to tell a story on an intimate scale. Ideally, both!”
Located directly opposite the Royal Mews, the exclusive Hotel 41 is just two minute’s walk from the Queen’s Gallery.
All images courtesy of the Royal Collection