Those art addicts looking for a quick fix of some whimsical Anglo-Italian art need not wait any longer to satisfy their cravings.
This week, the Yale Center for British Art presents “Canaletto in England: A Venetian Artist Abroad, 1746-1755” featuring Giovanni Antonio Canal, nicknamed Canaletto, one of the most celebrated and successful Italian landscape painters of the 18th century. This exhibition, the most ambitious survey ever compiled of Canaletto’s work in England, contains nearly 60 paintings and drawings showcasing a variety of scenes from both England and his homeland.
While Canaletto may be a household name to some (if you were raised to know the difference between capricci and vedute), others will recognize Canaletto’s paintings of Venice, which have become synonymous with our images of 18th century Italy.
This particular exhibition, on the other hand, offers insight into a lesser known period of this artist’s life; Canaletto relocated to England after a decline in his popularity back home in hopes of starting a profitable clientele with English grand tourists and patrons. Unlike previous similar exhibits, “Canaletto in England” is supposed to be diverse in content. The gallery appropriately divides his works into four categories: views of popular sites in London, paintings of grand country estates belonging to the English nobility who commissioned him, scenes from Venice and Rome he created from his memory, and imaginary landscapes known as “capricci.”
It’s difficult, however, to distinguish between the different groupings. Not only does Canaletto take liberties to make all his landscapes resemble one another (adding Mediterranean sunshine to the Westminster Bridge and placing the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum right next to each other), the setup of the gallery is not conducive to those experiencing Canaletto for the first time. Paintings of the same site hang adjacent to one another, while the unfinished drawings that were drafts for the final pieces are framed on the side. Without reading the captions for each grouping, understanding the story behind each individual painting becomes practically impossible.
In the second gallery, for example, two paintings titled “Greenwich: The Royal Naval Hospital” juxtapose one another. This setup is meant to challenge the viewer to determine which painting was done in Italy and which was completed on the actual site in England. Unfortunately, such subtleties are lost unless the viewer has the time and leisure to carefully examine the pieces.
“Canaletto in England” features pieces that are pleasing to the eye, exhibiting a grandiose style of detailed landscape depiction that is easy to appreciate. Although the exhibit attempts to capture the intricate relationships between Canaletto’s works, it falls short of fully realizing this goal.
To celebrate the exhibit, the YCBA hosted an opening lecture this past Wednesday, with Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art, discussing the environment in which Canaletto worked during his nine year stay in England.
The lecture, a bit of a disappointment, did not shed much insight on Canaletto’s work and in fact seemed more of a dissertation on obscure English culture during the 1740s than anything else. On the bright side, Allen did bring up some interesting facts about Canaletto’s personal life, describing the artist as “whimsical, temperamental toward his patrons, surly and clownish.”
Indeed, “Canaletto in England” might have done better to emphasize the more exciting qualities of his personality rather than the intricate details of Canaletto’s style. In spite of this mind-numbing attention to particulars, the exhibit serves to whet anyone’s appetite for traditional pre-Impressionist art. But don’t waste your time if it doesn’t pique your interest.