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A Conceptual Painter of Venice

01/04/2013 11:39 am ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

Canaletto was not the first or last painter to devote his career to recording the beauty of Venice, but he was the greatest. In 1725, when a collector asked his agent to order two more paintings of the city by Luca Carlevaris, the leading producer of these, the agent rejected the request, advising his client that he should instead buy the works of a younger artist, whose painting "is like that of Carlevaris, but you can see the sun shining in it."

Zuane Antonio Canal was born in Venice in 1697, the son of an artist who painted scenery for operas. Antonio's early career is not well documented, but he apparently began by helping his father. He went to Rome around 1720, and returned to Venice by 1722. Working under the name Canaletto to distinguish himself from his father, Antonio began to paint views of Venice, and quickly gained fame for this.

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Canaletto, The Stonemason's Yard (ca. 1726-30), image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An excellent exhibition of 50 of Canaletto's paintings, currently in Paris' Maillol Museum, reveals a number of intriguing facts about him and his artistic practice. These include the following:

Canaletto reached the peak of his achievement rapidly, producing his greatest views of Venice during his 20s and early 30s.

Canaletto, who is often described as having painted with photographic precision, in fact did use an optical device, or camera obscura, in the production of his paintings. Using this device involved working with his back to the motif, essentially tracing the image that was projected onto a page of his sketchbook. The exhibition includes one of Canaletto's sketchbooks, that shows how the artist superimposed the precise lines from the camera obscura over those of the rough initial sketch.

Canaletto sometimes used his precise and ostensibly realistic style in the service of fantasy. The Capriccio, as convincing and detailed as his views of existing scenes, were in fact imaginary subjects. One canvas of 1745 portrays Venice's famous Rialto Bridge in a neoclassical style, according to a design by Palladio that was never built.

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Canaletto, Capriccio: a Palladian Design for the Rialto Bridge (ca. 1745), image courtesy of WikiPaintings.org

Even Canaletto's views of existing scenes were often not photographic, but were optical illusions, made by skillfully combining a number of different points of view to create convincing portrayals of particular places at specific times. Thus Canaletto not only portrayed buildings, but also people — gondoliers, merchants, boys playing on the street — to create many small dramas, all with an ambient atmosphere that brought the city to life for viewers.

Canaletto's work deteriorated as he aged, as his paintings tended to become repetitive and formulaic, and lost much of their early animation. He spent the late 1740s in England, and during this time some English dealers and artists seized on the diminished quality of his work to circulate the malicious rumor that he was an impostor, not the real Canaletto who had earlier made great masterpieces. Canaletto responded to this indignity by publishing an advertisement, inviting "any gentleman that will be pleased" to come to his studio and watch him paint.

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Canaletto, Westminster Bridge (ca. 1746), image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

These facts might seem to have been curious anomalies, unique to Canaletto. In fact, however, all are consistent with the conceptual nature of Canaletto's approach, and of his art. His rapid early achievement of artistic maturity, which produced the most beautiful and realistic views of Venice art patrons had even seen, made him a typical example of the precocious conceptual young genius. His early decline in creativity was similarly typical of the conceptual innovator's life cycle.

Canaletto's use of a camera obscura in making preparatory drawings was not unique. The conceptual painters Vermeer and Eakins are known to have used optical devices to make preparatory studies for their paintings, and David Hockney has argued that this practice was used by many other painters - all of them conceptual.

Canaletto's apparently contradictory practice of using meticulous realism in the service of fantasy is a curious but not uncommon feature of conceptual practitioners of a number of arts. An example is the movie director Stanley Kubrick, who assembled a large staff of scientific advisors while making 2001 in the late 1960s. In spite of the fact that the film's hypothetical space mission would not be feasible for decades, Kubrick wanted to make the technology he portrayed "conform to what is known by physicists and astronomers." Kubrick explained his obsessive attention to realistic details in an imaginary project: "I have always enjoyed dealing with a slightly surrealistic situation and presenting it in a realistic manner."

Antonio Canaletto was described as a "brilliant and celebrated master, painter of the highest integrity and merit" when he was elected to the Venetian Academy in 1763. He died four years later. He inspired many later painters of Venice, but none would match the brilliance of his early masterpieces. "Canaletto à Venise," on display at the Maillol Museum through February 10, presents an excellent survey of his career. It is both beautiful and fascinating.

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Canaletto, Northumberland House (ca. 1752), image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.