Review: Eyewitness Views

The Cleveland Museums of Art’s Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe is the best show I’ve seen at the museum since I started my near-weekly visits six years ago. 

As good as the show is, however, the theme–artists as eyewitnesses to history–is a stretch.  The paintings are souvenirs of public events in (equally important) public places. The paintings are designed to attract the wallets of the participants or, failing that, tourists seeking souvenirs of famous places, for example:

  • The Consecration of Giuseppe Pozzobonelli as Archbishop in San Carlo al Corso, by Giovanni Paolo Panini
  • The Nocturnal Good Friday Procession in Piazza San Marco, by Francesco Guardi
  • The Procession of Our Lady of Grace in Front of Krasiński Palace, by Bernardo Bellotto (Canaletto’s nephew)

Notice that the events’ locations are as important as the events themselves.

The power of the show is the several paintings by Canaletto.  Canaletto’s reputation, like that of the great David, is shadowed by armies of imitators whose work clog the genre.  Mechanical treatments of the architectural highlights of Venice and Rome can fill many museums.  This show is a revelation to me because I had–mistakenly!–cast Canaletto onto that dusty heap. 

Canaletto transcends the genre in many ways. Using the buildings as props for his artistic imagination, he sometimes puts the viewer in an impossible spot for the location.   And although he frequently paints the most-desired sites, such as Venice’s Grand Canal, he often paints obscure or little-known locations, including lower class ones, such as The Stone Mason’s Yard.  He also created a series that combined contemporary buildings with ancient ruins into fanciful compositions. 

Most paintings lose a lot in reproduction, of course, but this is especially true for Canaletto.  The Procession on the Feast Day of Saint Roch is somewhat drab in reproduction (and my photos here) but is a visual feast when viewed face-to-face. The architectural detail is rendered masterfully; the many close-together tones are painted lucidly and with efficiency and wit. The solid geometry of the buildings is counter-pointed by the graceful awning flowing through the center of the painting.  The sky, always important in Canaletto’s paintings, provides another playful counter-tempo.

The Procession on the Feast Day of Saint Roch, about 1735. Canaletto

Typical of Canaletto, the buildings cradle an assortment of foreground figures that stretch across the entire stage.  The figures are rendered forcefully and directly, as can be seen in this detail. The simple-seeming rendering reveals the hand of a master painter. The little guy in the center of the painting showing us his rear is, I’m sure, an instance of Canaletto’s humor. 

Regatta on the Grand Canal furnishes another example of Canaletto’s style. In reproduction, the detail is diminished which drains tension from the painting leaving only the compositional skeleton counterbalanced again by the swirling sky.  But face-to-face, the wealth of detail is suspended in harmonic balance by the strength of Canaletto’s artistic intelligence.  Artists who encrust paintings with details often lose the thread of the composition and repeal the viewer.  By contrast, Canaletto’s direct, short-hand method produces details that take on a life of their own while remaining within the composition’s organizing structure.  

Regatta on the Grand Canal

As with The Procession on the Feast Day of Saint Roch, the architectural elements, including the sensuous canal, provide a stage for a truly astonishing assortment of figures, as can be seen in the following photo.  These globs and blobs animate the figures with vivacity.  Each gondolier is resolved individually which imparts freshness and life.  How many figures are in this one detail?  This reminds me of Manet or the great Daumier, two artists who thrived a century after Canaletto.

Canaletto used a camera obscura or something similar. The Wikipedia article about the camera obscura shows four drawings the artist produced with the device.  For some critics, this practice somehow lessens Canaletto’s achievement.  That is rubbish, in my view.  Many artists have used a camera obscura or a camera and very few–very few–have produced works of such high artistry.



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