Canaletto: Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697–1768
Visiting the National Gallery in London with an Australian friend, J.M. Whistler denigrated the work of J.M.W. Turner as sloppy and formless:
“Come and look at the paintings of a man who was a true workman.” So saying, he led me straight to a Canaletto. “Now,” he said, “here is a man who was absolute master of his materials. In this work you will find no uncertainty.”
We looked at Velasquez. Whistler said: “Here is another good workman. He, too, knew his trade and his tools. I place him upon the same plane as Canaletto. The two men run side by side. Their works are equally fine.”1
In a coincidence that would have delighted Whistler, Velasquez and Canaletto actually ran “side by side” in major exhibitions this past fall at the Metropolitan Museum.
A hundred years later, Whistler’s placement of Velasquez and Canaletto “on the same plane” is unexpected. Today few would dispute Velasquez’s high status but even Canaletto’s staunchest admirers would not claim him “equally fine.” Similarly, some contemporary observers have expressed surprise at the Metropolitan undertaking parallel shows of thirty-five paintings of Velasquez and eighty-five paintings and forty-two drawings of Canaletto. Hilton Kramer has asked apropos of Canaletto, “So why has the Metropolitan Musuem of Art now devoted a huge exhibition…to an artist of such limited vision?”2
Kramer claims that the show was put on mainly to celebrate one of the museum’s greatest patrons, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, particularly for her gift of a view of the Piazza San Marco. The reality is the reverse. The Metropolitan had been organizing a Canaletto show, when last year the opportunity to purchase this canvas from a private collection arose. The museum owned only one painting by Canaletto, which it deemed unworthy of hanging in the permanent galleries. The extremely generous Mrs. Wrightsman, who owns at least six fine paintings by the master, agreed to underwrite the cost, and thus the Piazza S. Marco could appear in the show, on the cover of the catalog, and on the poster.3
The show is remarkable for including most of Canaletto’s important works and it thus provides a concentrated and impressive idea of the artist, whose qualities are often underestimated and whose paintings are too often dismissed as stereotyped. The credit for this richesse must go to the persistence of the museum’s staff, especially to Katharine Baetjer and Everett Fahy—and, above all, to the exhibition’s “conceiver,” the English writer and editor J.G. Links.
Links is by profession a furrier, one of the owners of the London firm of Calman-Links, as well as a coauthor of “whodunits” (one of which, Murder off Miami, was a 1930s best seller), and a passionate amateur—in the best sense—of Venice and Canaletto. It is ironic that one of the first projects he undertook was to prepare an edition of the letters of Ruskin’s unfortunate wife, Effie Gray.4 For though Ruskin of course shared his bitter antagonist Whistler’s love of Venice,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.