Here is a culture story I wrote for Spectator Life on Venice in Art.
If we wanted to be transported to Venice in an instant, we might be inclined to look to Canaletto and his depictions of the city.
But Canaletto’s paintings show us more than pictures of Venice. His work often possesses an imagined dimension as he would create views of Venice that didn’t technically exist. The physical characteristics of the city were reconstructed: landmark buildings were moved and even the Grand Canal (in reality a reverse ‘S’ shape) was straightened in an extreme case of artistic license. For ‘The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day’ he shortened the Campanile so that it would fit into the picture, and the Torre dell’Orologio was shifted to the east. In ‘The Grand Canal looking South from Ca’ Foscari to the Carità’ the canal has been widened and the left bank straightened.
His early training as a scene painter may have been valuable preparation for his creative panoramic images. Canaletto’s close attention to detail convinces us that the creative illusion is real and that what we are looking at is an accurate representation of Venice. Part of his genius was his ability to seamlessly create a visual lie that enticed and intrigued those travelling on the Grand Tour, especially the British. Canaletto also worked in London for nine years painting the river Thames and its notable architectural skyline.
Looking closely at his work for answers as to how he achieved his impressive visions of Venice, a crucial clue could be in his manipulation of eye level in many of his paintings. Canaletto raises the viewer’s eye level to that of a giant: the higher the view point, the more information can be crammed into each illusion.
Canaletto’s love of Venice went beyond the crumbling grandeur of the city and extended to commonplace, every day sights: dirty backstreets and building sites were committed to the canvas. If Venice was past its prime while Canaletto was painting, by the time J.M.W. Turner arrived nearly 80 years later, it had slumped into an unkempt state. The city had suffered from the effects of poor economic growth following the Napoleonic wars.
Turner dealt with Venice’s decline by casting a poetic sheen across his canvases and focusing on its otherworldly qualities. His painting ‘The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa’ it feels as though we are looking at the painting through water. He visited the city several times and his work inspired Ruskin to pursue his own studies of the city’s great architecture. Under Turner’s hand, the city glows. Light plays games and obscures large patches of landscapes.
When Monet arrived in Venice in 1908 he wrote to his art dealer and explained that he wouldn’t be able to stay there for very long so, ‘There is no hope of doing any serious work.’ He went in September and stayed longer that he had anticipated, leaving in December. He was 67 years old and expressed a certain regret for not having visited Venice sooner. He asked for canvases to be sent from Paris as he had gone to Venice with limited materials. He was unprepared for what he would see and the feelings Venice would conjure. He had to adapt his technique of working en plein air. Although he continued to sketch outside at different times of day, because of where he was positioned to paint his subjects (such as on a pier to paint a building seemingly floating on water), it was impossible to stay in position for long. He called his collection of works from Venice mere ‘studies’ and ‘beginnings’, although that is surely doing his paintings (like ‘San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight’ and ‘The Palazzo Dario’) an injustice. Back in Giverny, he completed 37 works of Venice, 35 of which were done in the studio. They formed the basis of the acclaimed exhibition titled ‘Monet Venice’. The paintings show Monet’s attention to the faded architecture and colours that bounce from its waters. In these works, Monet observes the relationship between the constantly changing light and shadow and the movement of water.
Monet left Venice with every intention of returning the following year but tragic circumstances stopped him. His own health deteriorated and his wife and son died and he never made it back.
The stories that paintings of Venice could tell of the place are so vast and colourful that it is surely well worth a visit or two… not that you needed any more encouragement.