The painter generally credited with founding the 18th-century school of Venetian view painting, Luca Carlevarijs, gives people and architecture about equal billing, reveling in the life of the city, its major festivals and pageants, its urban bustle. But while full of people, they are not always full of life. Indeed, the same lady - dressed in pink, wearing a mask and holding a fan - appears in two Carlevarijs paintings, dropped in from a pattern book. Unfortunately, these paintings have been placed far from each other, on different floors of the exhibition.
In Canaletto's work, one generally gets fewer people and a lot more liveliness. He painted his own people - it wasn't uncommon for view painters to turn this task over to specialized subcontractors - and while they have the sometimes sketchy, provisional feel one would expect when figures are incidental to architectural interest, they convey all the essentials needed to animate the canvas: A sense of motion and musculature, and an existential reason for being present, other than as mere decoration. Even the people standing around in his "Piazza San Marco, looking South and West" give a powerful sense that the day is ending, the crowds heading home, the market over.
This exhibition focuses on Canaletto exclusively in Venice. He also spent long years in London and produced some lovely architectural "fantasies" not based on any particular building. Although he began as a scene painter for the theater, he emerged with a distinctive voice as an independent artist in Venice in the 1720s, and his early paintings remain the most consistently interesting.
An early view of the Piazza San Marco looking east to St. Mark's shows the famous square in the process of being repaved, with laundry hanging from some windows and tattered awnings shading others. The church is nervously rendered and the sky darker than would become typical of his later work. Like other paintings from this early period that capture out-of-the-way places, this is Venice without the scrubbed, polished, sunny splendor that became the Canaletto cliche.
By the 1730s, Canaletto's career seemed to be largely in the hands of an Englishman named Joseph Smith, who connected the artist with clients and may have steered him toward a more bright, burnished and precise style. If one senses that the young Canaletto had a sociological appetite for the nooks and crannies of his city, the older Canaletto indulges in variety for the simple reason that he was immensely busy and had to paint something.
In all, he seems to have produced about 1,500 paintings and drawings, yet he died relatively poor in 1768. It's not clear to what extent his relationship with Smith and the English market was exploitative, and how much the consistent patronage of one particular social and ethnic group limited his artistic reach.