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, he despised Canaletto and lost few opportunities to denounce him as, for example, “less to be trusted for rendering of details, than the rudest and most ignorant painter of the thirteenth century.” 5

In 1969, Links was asked by the English art historian W.G. Constable, who worked as a curator at the Boston Museum, to take on the fairly thankless task of revising Constable’s study of Canaletto, which is accompanied by a catalogue raisonné. Links successfully brought together widely scattered documents on Canaletto’s life and work and newly discovered paintings to produce a new edition in 1976; and since much further material subsequently became available, we now have a second revised edition published in 1989.

The most valuable aspect of the latest edition is a hundred-page preface that reviews our knowledge of the artist in light of recent publications and discoveries.6 Though the exhibition at the Metropolitan has a superbly designed catalog with contributions by Sir Michael Levey, Francis Haskell, Alessandro Bettagno, and the conservator Viola Pemberton-Pigott, and catalog entries by Katharine Baetjer, it is basically a splendid visual manifestation of Constable’s now rather old-fashioned monograph as it was revised by Links.

Canaletto was baptized in the Church of Saint Leone or Leo in Venice on October 30, 1697. His father, Bernardo Canal, was a painter specializing in decorations for the theater and Canaletto began his career as his assistant. In 1719 and 1720, father and son were in Rome where they are recorded as executing scenes for two Scarlatti operas, Tito Sempronico Greco and Turno Aricino. This grounding in the Baroque theater was fundamental to Canaletto’s work. The idea of the capriccio—imaginative combinations of real and fictive landscape motifs—could well have been an outgrowth of stage design, whose principles ordered his Venetian vedute, or views, with their sharply receding perspectives and their conception of Venice as a city whose public spaces resemble stage sets.


In 1721, as a contemporary biographer put it, Canaletto “solemnly excommunicated the theatre” to concentrate on view paintings. The initial galleries of the exhibition displayed the truly extraordinary achievement of these early vedute. These paintings are remarkable on several counts. They are large and encompassing in scale. The Grand Canal: looking Northeast from near the Palazzo Corner is over ninety-two inches long, unusually large for a landscape picture, but it enables the artist to describe the six hundred meters of one of the Grand Canal’s longest single straight stretches. Already, Canaletto disregards topographical fact to achieve an overall effect. In the vedute of S. Giacomo di Rialto, the church, the oldest established in Venice, is swung thirty degrees onto a perpendicular in order to be more fully rendered. The scene is observed from two separate perspectival viewpoints to take in more of the square or campo in front of the church, which was the commercial center of the city.

Canaletto was an extraordinarily acute observer. In the early paintings, he describes the physical reaction of water when it is disturbed by the wake of a boat or by gondoliers’ poles, and his subdued palette—ruddy with aqueous greens—persuasively evokes Venice’s often gray, damp weather. The inclusion of a wealth of such unexpected details strengthens the credibility of these vedute. Large umbrellas clutter the facade of the San Marco as a herd of goats wanders through the piazza; four colorfully dressed men lounge on the Campo S. Vio in front of a large grafitto of a barge; a woman drapes laundry over the entrance to S. Giacomo di Rialto while on its campo a group of connoisseurs animatedly discuss some large painted busts of Orientals.

The paintings are no less striking in their persuasive luminosity. We know in fact that this was a feature especially valued by Canaletto’s contemporaries. The four early paintings commissioned by Stefano Conti are singularly well documented. Conti, a Lucchese textile merchant and collector of modern paintings, ordered them in 1725 at the suggestion of his art consultant, who wrote that Canaletto “astounds everyone who sees his work….it is like Carlevaris but you can see the sun shining in it.” Carlevaris was Canaletto’s slightly older competitor in vedute, specializing in crowded scenes depicted in rather artificial pastel colors.

These early vedute are distinctive in their sober and prosaic presentation of the subject. They do not envision the city as a locale for historical events, as do the sixteenth-century canvases commissioned for the Palazzo Ducale, or as a scene animated by festivals, ceremonies, or receptions, as were common in the work of earlier vedute painters. Canaletto’s first vedute are about the everyday life of Venice. We know from various pieces of evidence that Canaletto painted these works in his mid-twenties. Constable in his monograph cites a number of possible artistic sources but there is nothing truly comparable to these paintings. It is still obscure how the relatively young Canaletto suddenly achieved such an ambitious and serious art.

In the late 1720s, Canaletto began to do work for British patrons. His first connection was probably with Owen McSwiney (variously spelled), an Irishborn man of the theater, who after running into financial difficulties in London, went to the Continent. There he tried to recoup his fortunes by commissioning for resale a series of painted imaginary allegorical tombs of recent “illustrious personages who flourish’d in England,” ranging from Isaac Newton to the immortal Sir Clowdisley Shovell, the admiral who fought Barbary pirates and helped to capture Gibraltar for the British. McSwiney, who evidently had an excellent eye, engaged many of the leading painters in Bologna and Venice to work in teams on this project. McSwiney provided specific instructions down to the “Basso-Rilievo’s.” The impresario sold fifteen of the “monuments” to the Duke of Richmond. The two that Canaletto collaborated on are included in the exhibition and without the documents explaining them it would be very difficult indeed to decipher what these scenes showing agitated churchmen are all about.

In a letter of November 28, 1727, dealing with the sale of the tomb pictures, McSwiney writes that he is also sending the duke two vedute on copper plates by Canaletto. This announcement marks a decisive change in Canaletto’s art. The exhibition, in one of its most impressive sequences, gathered together all nine of the known surviving vedute on copper (all but one of which are privately owned). Here the palette brightens and the sun emerges over some of Venice’s best-known scenes, including views of the Grand Canal, the Molo, etc. Their small scale is well suited for export.

Canaletto uses the metal in an innovative way. Traditionally in Northern Italy, copper was used as a ground to create a polished opalescent paint surface that seems to absorb light. Canaletto uses the support as a foundation to do the reverse, so that the pictures almost seem to radiate sunshine. His near miraculous facility with paint can be appreciated in the beautifully preserved Riva degli Schiavoni: looking East (lent by the Duke of Devonshire). The water-stained pink and white facade of the Palazzo Ducale is conveyed by a remarkable web of pigments that are both daubed and incised into the copper. The details of the architecture, the crenellations and quatrefoils are rendered with an astonishing sureness.


The rarely fortunate McSwiney soon lost his position as Canaletto’s agent to the less picturesque but more efficient Joseph Smith. Smith has been well-served in the writings of Francis Haskell and others.7 He was a meat and fish merchant resident in Venice, an antiquarian, a bibliophile, and a fan of theater and opera, who in 1744 was named to the secondary diplomatic post of British Consul. He was a serious connoisseur of old and modern paintings—his collection in Venice included a Rembrandt sketch and Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals. Smith was the patron of many leading Venetian artists but his relationship with Canaletto was special. Although we know very little about how they got on together personally, he became Canaletto’s main intermediary with the market. In 1736, a Swedish visitor complained that the artist worked for nobody else. Smith sent many of Canaletto’s paintings to England, while gathering together for his own delectation scores of works by the artist.

The vedute that Canaletto made under Smith’s guidance have become the definitive image of Venice. For many they are inseparable from the reality of the city, or even inform that reality. When Mrs. Piozzi arrived in Venice in 1785 she found that the city

revived all the ideas inspired by Canaletto, whose views of this town are most scrupulously exact…to such a degree indeed, that we knew all the famous towers, steeples, etc. before we reached them.8

Constable and Links’s monograph lists literally hundreds of views dispatched to England and it is fair to ask why, beyond its scenic qualities, was the image of Venice so appealing to the British? What did the city mean to them? Following up a suggestion by Francis Haskell, one might speculate that the English aristocracy might have been attracted to the structure and stability of the Serenissima.9 Venice prided itself upon being a republic, with no king and only a weak executive. Power, however, was actually concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy, and as such Venice had flourished for a thousand years. To the Whig ascendancy, many of whom were Canaletto’s patrons, both the myth and the reality of the Venetian state were appealing.

For many Englishmen, moreover, Venice was identified with a different kind of liberty. During the eighteenth century, Venice was renowned for its licentiousness. Its courtesans were legion and legendary for their talents. The state promoted extravagant entertainments. Under the mask of carnival, behavior was tolerated that would have been out of bounds back home. The most popular painter of the time in Venice was not Canaletto but Rosalba Carriera, who could hardly meet the demand for her pretty pastels of the city’s women. In an English country house, the embodiment of an aristocrat’s family and social obligations, a veduta could have been the souvenir of a moment of personal freedom.

The most impressive of Canaletto’s Venetian vedute is the astounding Bacino San Marco: looking East lent by the Boston Museum. The view is taken from two separate points on the Dogana and encompasses the entire Basin, from the beginning of the Molo to the tip of the Giudecca. It combines a sweeping vision with a multitude of precisely described details. The catalog notes the number and variety of vessels and fairly states that “the picture is uniquely suggestive of the historic vitality of the maritime enterprises of the Serenissima.” This masterpiece formerly hung in Castle Howard and, in a remarkable act of sureness, was the one painting by Canaletto purchased by the foremost specialist on the artist, W.G. Constable, in his thirty years as a museum curator.

In 1746, after the War of the Austrian Succession cut Canaletto off from English buyers, he went to England for ten years. Generous selections of both the view paintings and the capricci he executed there were among the revelations of the Metropolitan show. The English pictures have long been underrated. In June 1749, an observer of the London art scene wrote that about Caneletto,

something is obscure or strange. he does not produce works so well done as those of Venice or other parts of Italy. which are in Collections here. and done by him there…his water & his skys at no time excellent or with natural freedom. & what he has done here his prospects of Trees woods or handling or pencilling of that part not various nor so skillfull as might be expected.

The writer ends with the conjecture that the artist is not the “veritable Canaletto of Venice” but an imposter.10 This is an extreme but understandable response to how Canaletto’s style shifted on his arrival in England. He seems to have been literally shocked by the new landscape and northern light. Instead of trying to portray London like Venice or the English countryside like the terra firma of the Veneto, he disregarded his formulas and tried to look afresh.

This is not to say that he abandoned the artistic strategies he had worked out over thirty years, but his genuine determination to grasp the new setting is manifest. In an attempt to take in the vastness of London, Canaletto returned to the panoramic vision of the Bacino, notably in the two views from Richmond House; but instead of concentrating on a plethora of detail, he attempts to capture the particular luminosity of the atmosphere over the Thames. Among the most remarkable pictures of this decade are several portraits of grand country houses. Here Canaletto finds the particular views his patrons wanted painted so intractable that he drops almost all pretense of constructing an artful composition. The results, for instance in Warwick Castle: the East Front from the Courtyard (see previous page), with its stark irregular wall and towers placed parallel to the picture plane, and, to a greater extent, in the views of Badminton House, not included in the show, are perhaps the most severe landscapes of the century.

Recent studies in art history have had much to say about the social aspect of landscape pictures.11 Such art historians as John Barrell of Cambridge and Ann Bermingham of the University of California at Davis consider the functions that the land and buildings in a real or imaginary view might actually have had, noting how a picturesque castle might be the seat of an arbitrary power, or a lovely field might provide marginal existence for a tenant farmer. The figures in a landscape are coming to be seen as more than just animating ornaments; they may in some cases illustrate real economic relationships. Such art history is as interested in what is not represented, what is suppressed, as that which is portrayed. Canaletto’s art could be illuminated by such consideration. He did not necessarily regard his figures as incidental. In the receipts he gave to Stefano Conti, he specifically describes the professions and occupations of the men in the paintings. In the great English period pictures we see that a variety of rural activities are being pursued in the fields in front of Windsor Castle. In one of the London views a servant scrapes to the Duke of Richmond. Vauxhall Gardens and Ranelagh, we quickly note, were places where different classes mingled.

London: Westminster Bridge from the North on Lord Mayor’s Day, the first of the English period paintings in the Metropolitan’s exhibition, lent by the Yale Center for British Art, is particularly suited to analysis for its social implications. It is a midriver aerial view of the second span over the Thames after London Bridge. Designed by a Swiss, Charles Labeled, this was the most conspicuous civil engineering project of the 1740s in Britain. Canaletto shows Westminster Bridge on the Lord Mayor’s Day, 1746; in front are the Lord Mayor’s barge, with its eighteen oarsmen, and the barges of various city guilds including the Skinners, Goldsmiths, Fishmongers, Clothworkers, Vintners, Merchant Taylors, Mercers, and Drapers. Behind the bridge we can see the buildings of Westminster, including the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and on the south bank, Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Canaletto depicts the bridge as finished, though at this date several arches still had their centering elements and in the next year one arch began to sink, damaging the structure and postponing its official opening until 1750.

Like many similar projects today, the building of the bridge was highly controversial. It was bitterly opposed by ferrymen, who made a living transporting people and goods across the river at Westminster. The ferrymen made a number of efforts to stop the construction, for which they were vigorously prosecuted. Grave doubts about the bridge were also held in the City of London, which feared the new span would undermine its preeminent commercial position.

There is no hint of any of these difficulties in Canaletto’s cheery blue-skied painting. The bridge is perfectly built, surrounded by the celebratory barges of the City’s institutions, which are in visual harmony with the monuments of Church and State. Though nothing is known of the provenance of the Yale canvas before 1895, it seems quite possible that it was ordered by one of the commissioners of the bridge, but even if it was not, the painting seems almost certainly to have been intended to propagate an entirely idealized view of the project. Several of the commissioners, including Sir Hugh Smithson, later first Duke of Northumberland, and the Dukes of Richmond and Beaufort, were among Canaletto’s most important patrons during his English sojourn.

In his late fifties, Canaletto returned to Venice for good. He does not seem to have flourished there, but the exhibit ends on a high note with two of the four paintings commissioned by a German merchant Sigismund Streit, who had long been resident in Venice. These works are once again both expansive in scale and acutely observed. Almost uniquely among vedute, one is a nocturnal scene of a summer’s evening festival at S. Pietro di Castello, illuminated by a full moon and a sky spangled with golden stars. Here we see one of the few paintings of the period to anticipate Romantic landscape.

There is little to criticize about the organization of so strong an exhibition, but it is unfortunate that three kinds of pictures were deliberately excluded from it. First is a group of capricci paintings that have recently been plausibly attributed to Canaletto’s youth and that can shed light on the vexed problem of his artistic origins. Links says they were excluded because “little opportunity has existed to study these pictures”; but examples were included in two recent exhibitions in Italy. Surely one purpose of such an undertaking as the one at the Metropolitan should be to show how newly discovered work can affect the accepted interpretations of an artist’s oeuvre, as was successfully done at the museum’s own Caravaggio show in 1985.

It is also regrettable that Canaletto’s extraordinary series of drawings of Roman monuments, all but one of which are in the British Museum, are not included. Canaletto visited Rome as a young man, where a biographer stated “he found beautiful subjects especially in antiquity.” These sheets, with their bold viewpoints, dramatic contrasts of light and shade, and excitedly gesticulating figures are strongly subjective and deviate from the prevailing tradition of Roman cityscapes, exemplified in the early eighteenth century by Pannini. Canaletto ceased to work in this style but it is difficult to believe that Piranesi, a fellow Venetian a generation younger, did not see these drawings, for they seem premonitory of his attitude and approach to Rome.

Finally, it is odd that Canaletto’s work as a printmaker is absent from the exhibition, though the museum has tried to compensate for this by hanging a number of examples in a separate uncatalogued exhibition mainly of graphic works in the gallery below the Lehman Collection. Canaletto’s printmaking falls into two categories: engravings after his work and original etchings. The engravings, mainly by Antonio Visentini, are important though not of great artistic interest. Canaletto himself, however, made thirty etchings. Freed from the demands of a specific clientele these works are, Francis Haskell has written, “by far his most poetic excursions.” 12 They include many unfamiliar observations of Venice, the lagoon and the terra firma, rendered as either luoghi, “real places” or ideate, “ideal landscapes,” in a style strong and limpid. The etchings were made around 1740 and can be seen as a conspectus of the first half of the artist’s productive life. In an exhibition that provides darkened galleries to protect works on paper and makes available an entire wall to display a set of signed artist’s receipts, the exclusion of etchings is hard to defend. It reflects a dated hierarchic conception according to which paintings and drawings are “high art” but reproducible works are not, regardless of their interest or quality.

The connoisseurship of the large body of pictures attributed to Canaletto is a troublesome subject, as becomes readily apparent from many carefully worded entries in the catalogue raisonné. Canaletto certainly worked at some times with collaborators and assistants; even during his lifetime his art was copied and forged. The exhibition on the whole avoided difficulties by adhering as much as possible to pictures that could be linked to the artist’s original patrons, exemplified by the group of thirteen paintings and sixteen drawings from the British Royal Collection purchased from Joseph Smith. But the handful of paintings included in the exhibition that have emerged since the original publication of Constable’s monograph have been given definitive attributions by Links.

Here difficulties arise. For instance, with its fussy execution, rubbery forms, and curious acidic colors, it is hard to believe that Canaletto painted the view of Dolo on the Brenta which came to light in 1978 and is now on loan to the Stuttgart Gallery from the company that manufactures Mercedes-Benz automobiles.13 The two paintings—a view from the Fondamente Nuove and The Grand Canal—that surfaced at Sotheby’s in 1982 and 1985, of which there are copies in the Royal Collection, pose more problems. No doubt they are remarkable pictures, but are they by Canaletto? With their stagy atmospheric effects, self-conscious moodiness, loosely rendered architecture, and above all, use of form-destroying impasto, they have no parallels in Canaletto’s accepted work. This is not to say that they are not by the artist, but to establish this would take a more rigorous argument than that supplied in either the catalog or monograph.14

There is much else in the exhibition not touched on here, particularly the splendid series of drawings, which raise many interesting questions about the process by which Canaletto worked out his pictures. The present relaxation of tension between East and West raises hopes for what would be the natural sequel to this splendid show, an exhibition at the Metropolitan devoted to Canaletto’s nephew, Bernardo Bellotto—featuring the great series of vedute in Dresden and Warsaw.

This Issue

March 15, 1990