A Toylike Realm: Canaletto Is the Master of a Miniature World

FOR MOST museum-goers, a Canaletto is no more than the quintessential image of Venice, as predictable as an Albers Homage to the Square. On the bottom is a turquoise canal or lagoon, dotted with gondolas; above it biscuit-colored palaces and piazzas zoom off in perspective, tiny people stand here and there, catching the light, and at the top is a sourish blue sky. After you have seen one or two Canalettos, you’re convinced you know this eighteenth-century painter through and through and can now speed by him in museums. At the recent show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first he ever had in this country, Canaletto actually turned out to be a lot like Albers—or Mondrian, or Barnett Newman, or many twentieth-century artists whose work revolves around a single theme or image. Besides Venice, Canaletto worked in England and in Rome and on the mainland off Venice. But he never made anything other than views, and part of the enjoyment of the show was in seeing how he varied his attack from picture to picture. Canaletto’s subject for us is less the places he painted than looking in itself. The pictures seem to be about how an artist sees and stylizes simultaneously.

A Canaletto view reproduced in a book, or seen from any distance in a gallery, might be no more than a postcard. But up close it is a teemingly busy theater set. You must adjust your eyes to a pinpoint scale, and the experience is like peeping. In the Venetian pictures especially, there often seems to be some furthest, deepest point of seeing; it might be a brightly lit but infinitesimally small space between buildings, and finding it, you childishly think you have entered the picture. And the “interior" of a Canaletto is a bit like a miniature de Chirico; it’s a stage with deep shadows, shafts of light, and clean, empty streets from which rise endless cardboard arcades. Canaletto and de Chirico paint in a similar showy, one-shot way, with each detail a separate entity that seems to have been dashed on with a fresh coat of paint. When a detail of a Canaletto is shown, it is usually of his people, and the essence of his art is the relation of his buildings, which seem anchored and immovable, to the figures, which twitter. Canaletto sticks his brightly colored little bubbles, dots, and jagged shafts of light—his figures—everywhere. He’s incredible in suggesting real, particular bodily poses and gestures, even facial expressions, in the tiniest imaginable shapes. He puts them (and the details of buildings) in places where a passerby obviously couldn’t see them. And while the relation of the figures to the buildings seems accurate at first, it eventually feels unnatural—aren’t the structures too massive? Where is the artist himself standing in order to achieve such a right yet wrong sense of perspective and scale?

Did Canaletto use the camera obscura? This was a little tentlike contraption. One stepped inside and set a piece of paper at a certain angle to a lens opening, and the view the lens pointed to would be reflected on the paper and could be traced by the artist. Historians now seem to believe that Canaletto rarely used the device, but somehow it doesn’t matter. His vision of people and space is mechanical. What is enjoyable about his pictures is the way they seem to tingle and blink.

Most of Canaletto’s work was done for the tourist trade in Venice. He was a view painter, which was a newly popular line; he wasn’t considered a high or fine artist in his time. When a painting academy was founded in the city in 1756, he wasn’t asked to be among its founding members. Canaletto remains a well-known artist of the past who isn’t exactly an Old Master. There have long been good pictures by him in the National Gallery, in Washington, and in London’s National Gallery, but when I turned to various picture books of these museums’ twenty-five or hundred most admired pictures, Canaletto wasn’t represented. Nor is he mentioned in janson’s standard History of Art. And reviews of the Met’s show made clear that for some he is still no more than a journeyman. Certainly the exhibition helped perpetuate this notion. There were far too many samelooking Venetian scenes, and while this may give an overall sense of his work, it gives no feeling for the particular sort of steely, wry, and delicate painter that he is at his best.

Canaletto’s most ardent admirer may have been Whistler, who said the Venetian artist was comparable to Velázquez. Whistler enjoyed delivering the unexpected remark, and putting Canaletto in the same league as Velazquez—now everybody’s idea of the supremely beautiful painter—was a slap at received taste. By a nice coincidence the Met gave Velázquez his first American show at the same time that Canaletto had his, and I found some sense to Whistler’s opinion. On the face of it Velázquez and Canaletto are total opposites: Canaletto is the master of a toylike realm; Velázquez is a portraitist whose pictures produce an unnerving sense that not much is being said about the sitter and nothing more can be said. But neither has an underlying story to tell. Each made an art about the properties, charms, and tricks of sheer seeing. A Velázquez figure or portrait bust is an optically unpinned-down thing; the subject seems to move out of its surrounding space and into our space as we look at it. We have to step back and forth a little for the magic to begin, while with Canaletto we have to step in as close as possible. Do these painters leave very different emotions? Not really. Velázquez fills a viewer with a sense of intelligently muted gorgeousness, and Canaletto, in certain pictures where seemingly the whole world is seen in a state of intense miniaturization, presents a stimulating emptiness.

VERY LITTLE IS known about Canaletto. Born Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), he was the son of a set designer, and worked (along with his brother) for his father as a very young man. He acquired the nickname Canaletto probably in order to distinguish him from his father and because he was short. He was called greedv, but this was probably trumped up by his dealers. Yet it is imaginable that he was mercurial and difficult to deal with, as was also said. He never married or had children, and while there are some terse factual records concerned with particular commissions, and he had a studio and assistants, little or nothing concerning any friendships has survived.

Canaletto’s clients were primarily English tourists to Venice, and the majority of his best work is in England (there are very few top-quality Canalettos in Italy). He had a long-standing special relationship with a Joseph Smith, who bought Canalettos for himself and acted as an agent for them in England. The English have done most of the writing about Canaletto, and most jump to tell us that the painter’s best work was done in the beginning and that he became dry and mannered. (It’s possible to believe the opposite, that as he became more stylized and artificial, his work became stronger.) Michael Levey, who was for many years the director of London’s National Gallery, has written a glowing appreciation of the artist for the Met’s catalogue. What’s odd about it is that Levey left a very different impression in influential earlier accounts. In Painting in XVIII Century Venice (1959), a perceptive and elegantly written study, he presents Canaletto in an obligators mood, and in Rococo to Revolution (1966), about eighteenth-century painting in general— it, too, is first-rate—he ignores him entirely.

Levey speaks for nearly all English writers in calling The Stonemason’s Yard (it’s in London’s National Gallery) Canaletto’s supreme effort. In this large and early painting his people dot a cavernous view into a back yard. Stonemasons chop away, a kid is peeing, and a mother is screaming. In the distance are boats and churches, and laundry flaps in the air. The picture has been admired in part, I think, because it presents an un-Venetian Canaletto; the somewhat dreary and hemmed-in workaday scene recalls Dickens. Yet there are many more pictures in which his subject isn’t tourist Venice, and they’re more exciting than The Stonemason’s Yard.

CANALETTO WILL always be associated with Venice, of course, but I found that his most personal, poetic, and dreamy pictures were from trips to the mainland off Venice and from his stay in England. Canaletto’s reputation is that of an insider; he is an ultimate souvenir-maker in the ultimate souvenir locale. Yet on and off he worked as a tourist himself, and the pictures from his travels are wonderfully wide-eyed, as if of places seen for the first time.

In pictures of Padua, Mestre, and their environs, he presents public squares and fields and marshy outskirts. We might be on a train, passing by a sleepy backwater nowhere. It’s as if Canaletto were the first painter to show us what the suburbs looked like.

Canaletto spent some ten years in England, and his English pictures present still another sort of artist. He painted many scenes of London, and there were commissions for this castle or church, or the grounds of that park. Sometimes he was an uninspired recorder of a dull building. But Old Walton Bridge, which shows a bridge spanning a little river, with gents and locals dotting the scene here and there, casts a spell. The bridge itself seems to jump right out of the picture; we believe we see its every beam. It’s like a Sol LeWitt Minimalist sculpture made out of painted white matchsticks.

Canaletto is more original, though, in a number of centerless panoramas— pictures of yards, parks, streets, and long-distance views of rather underpopulated places. With his eye accustomed to jam-packed Venice, London and its surrounding sites must have been like the moon to him—or so he makes it seem. In a couple of large, squarish views made for the Duke of Richmond he presents a vantage point rarely seen in paintings of any period: it’s like a crane shot taken from incredibly high up, with everything sparklingly lucid for miles. One picture is a view down into the courtyard of Richmond House and off into the city, the other a view across a terrace and up the Thames, These pictures present views from such a height and angle that we uncannily feel that we ourselves are seeing the scenes; we have the distinct sensation of being at a window.

In the Thames picture, a nominee for his single finest work, our eyes keep moving out, beyond the sunny terrace with its strolling families and couples, across the river, which is abuzz with boats, to St. Paul’s and smaller church steeples in the distance, and then further out, to a vast nothing. The picture is the work of a Romantic artist ahead of his time; it has the Romantic mood of expectant stillness, when everything is in readiness for some revelation.

CANALETTO EVENTUALLY returned to Venice for good, and his most compelling later works are his drawings. All through his life, actually, Canaletto produced pen-andink drawings that are self-contained works of art in themselves. Making shapes and space with cross-hatchings or units of parallel lines, and always conveying an airy, breathing, fabriclike texture, they recall Dufy, van Gogh, and Cy Twombly, and some of Canaletto’s interiors, which are like TV images with bad reception, recall Richard Artschwager.

In his later drawings Canaletto surpassed himself. Shading the lines with washes, he makes it seem as if everything—the movement of an arm, a pot of flowers—were seen through glass on a rainy day. The drawings of masses of people in a square are staggering. There seem to be hundreds of figures in these relatively small works, and air can be felt circulating around each one. Their heads are woozily formed, with overhanging brows and dark eye sockets, and they often wear huge floppy hats. They’re so many bobbins at the bottom of a vista; but they have more of a presence—it’s a cartoonish presence— than any of his earlier figures.

At his death Canaletto was found to have been living a somewhat spartan and frugal existence. The vogue for his pictures had long since passed. But it’s difficult to imagine him ever living it up. He was a mixture of hardworking businessman, master craftsman, and fanatical, one-track poet. His art was about the beauty of seeing and about his magicianlike technical skill. It’s as though he always wanted a viewer to wonder, How does he do it? The only remotely personal words that we have from him refer simultaneously to sight and to his sense of self-esteem. His last signed picture, made a few years before his death, is a drawing of the interior of San Marco. On it he inscribed, after his name, “Have made the present drawing, of the Musicians who Sing in the Ducal Church of S. Marco in Venice at the age of 68 years Without Spectacles, The year 1766.”