Monday, December 5, 2016

Depictions of Venetian Canals in 18th and 19th-Century Landscapes

Venice has long been a popular subject of landscapes, and artists of varying genres have attempted to capture it in paint. Venice itself has undergone many changes throughout the years. While it enjoyed centuries of peace, wealth, and canals bustling with gondolas and overflowing trade-ships, the French invasion of Italy in 1797 would have a hard impact on Venice’s prosperity. Venice was very impoverished throughout the following decades as it was still recovering from the invasion. Even into the 1840s, writers describe the city as exhibiting a “ghostly and funeral silence.” This unfortunate downturn is reflected in artwork. Throughout this collection the viewer will see that landscape paintings of Venice changed from the classic teeming canal to a more toned-down, quieter approach of the city. The depictions of Venetian canals in the pre-1797 era differ quite significantly from the 19th century landscapes. Artists shift their subject matter from the grand to the more intimate and mundane. However, despite this transition, some artists such as J.M.W. Turner hold on to the grandeur of the past and chose to call back to the golden years by painting a romantic version of the famous city. This collection places a series of landscapes in chronological order to allow the viewer to see how the trade vessels shift from foreground to background and the subject matter and depictions of these well-known canals change over time.

Artist: Canaletto, Italian (Venetian), 1697–1768
Title: Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day
Date: c. 1732
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 77 × 126 cm)
Current Location: Royal Collection, Windsor
Accession Number: 2005.3.25

This is the archetypical Venetian scene that most people associated with the city. It depicts Venice in all its wealth and splendor. The artist, Canaletto, was famous for depicting scenes like this and was quite popular during his time. This particular work celebrates a triumphant Venice by depicting a canal filled with golden gondolas, boats, and gleaming ships. Canaletto was the consummate painter of Venice at his time and his style and subject matter was often emulated by his contemporaries.

Artist: Francesco Guardi (Italian, Venice 1712–1793 Venice)
Title: Venice from the Bacino di San Marco
Date: ca. 1760
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 48 x 60 in. (121.9 x 152.4 cm)
Credit Line: Bequest of Adele L. Lehman, in memory of Arthur Lehman, l965
Current Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 65.181.8

Francesco Guardi was a peer of Canaletto’s. He too focused the subject matter of his Venice-themed paintings on the trade ships and gondolas during a time where Venice was a leading international commercial town. The famous canals can be seen filled with a number of people and ships going about their work. Guardi draws the viewer's attention to the ships in the foreground. The subject matter of this painting is the business, prosperity and commerce that many would associate with the city during its golden age in the 18th century.

Artist: Fransesco Guardi (1712-1793)
Title: The Bucintoro Festival of Venice
Date: c. 1780-93
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 98 cm (38.58 in). Width: 138 cm (54.33 in)
Credit Line: English: Acquired 1923
Current Location: Statens Museum for Kunst
Accession Number: KMS3630

The Bucintoro Festival of Venice is another oil painting by Guardi which follows in his and Canaletto’s tradition of depicting Venetian canals as teeming with all manner of busy boats and ships. This scene shows a festival which celebrates Venice’s prominence in the world. Guardi seeks to instill viewers with a sense of awe and pride for the city. However, not long after this landscape was released, the French invasion of Italy occurred and artists began to shift their subject matter.

Artist: Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-1828)
Title: Venice. The Grand Canal
Date: 1827
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 13 7/8 x 17 7/8 in. (35.2 x 45.4 cm)
Current Location: Private Collection

The Italian economy was hit hard after the French invasion of 1797 and, subsequently, artists began to shift themes in their depictions of Italy. This painting by an Englishman, Richard Parkes Bonington, depicts a quieter Venice; no longer is it bustling with busy gondolas and overflowing trade ships. Bonington pushes any ships and gondolas into the background and the subject matter becomes the water and sky, and the reflections that the light casts. This is most likely a fairly accurate depiction of what a Venetian canal looked like at the time due to its dwindling economy.

Artist: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1896-1975)
Title: Venice - View Of Campo Della Carita Looking Towards The Dome Of The Salute
Date: 1834
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 39 x 27 cm
Current Location: Private Collection

Even into the 1840s, writers describe Venice as exhibiting a “ghostly and funeral silence.” The viewer can almost imagine this quiet atmosphere in this depiction of Venice by French painter Corot. There are a few gondolas present in the water, piloted by people wearing simple clothes. Corot does not depict a grand and busy Venice because it simply did not exist at the time. He instead gives a more peaceful and tranquil atmosphere and focuses on the reflections of the buildings and the effect the light has on the water of the canals.

Artist: Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, London 1775–1851 London)
Title: Venice, from the porch of the Madonna Della Salute
Date: ca. 1835
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 36 x 48 1/8 in. (91.4 x 122.2 cm)
Credit Line: Bequest of Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1899
Current Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Accession Number: 99.31

J.M.W. Turner was a popular English landscape painter during his time. He made several trips to Venice and he liked to muse over the grandeur or decadence of the past. This characteristic of Turner would explain why Venice is portrayed in such a romantic way. He hearkens back to the successful and busy Venice of the previous centuries in this work by depicting it as, once again, teeming with overflowing trade vessels. This is almost certainly not the Venice that Turner himself experienced and some scholars make the argument that, through this portrayal, Turner is trying to show how the Venetian focus on private pleasures led to its economic collapse.

Artist: Thomas Moran (1837–1926)
Title: View of Venice
Date: ca. 1887
Medium: Watercolor and gouache on paper
Dimensions: 14 x 20 5/8 in. (35.6 x 52.4 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Mary Carswell, 2009
Location: The Clark Art Institute, MA
Accession Number: 2009.13

Thomas Moran was born in England but took up residence in New York and painted at the Hudson River School. He also journeyed to Venice and was influenced by Turner’s style. This influence can be seen in the way the buildings blur into the reflections in the water without a distinct line. Like Bonington and Corot, the boats and trade vessels are pushed into the background and the focus becomes the cloudy sky and the distorted reflections in the water. Venice would continue to be depicted in this quieter atmosphere into the 20th century and, when the impressionist movement gained traction, artists would continue to focus on the unique lighting and calm waters.

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