Marieschi died young, but Francesco Guardi, his longer-lived contemporary, picked up on some of the atmospheric volatility in Marieschi's best work; he was moving the form sharply away from the detail, clarity and poise of Canaletto. Guardi's view of the plaza outside St. Mark's during an Ascension Day festival, painted around 1777, shows the iconic church oddly framed by some temporary arcades, as if to say the old landmark was no longer central in the painter's consciousness. The exhibition ends with several Guardi paintings that are focused more on the lagoon, water and sky, and the natural surroundings of Venice, than the city itself.
By 1804, when the sculptor Canova inquired after painters focused on Venice, he was told: "There are no more view painters of repute."
It's rare for an exhibition to concentrate so cleanly and concisely on a single genus, for what is essentially the entirety of its century-long run. From the chilly stiffness of Van Wittel's view of the city, to the wispy, cotton-candy threads of Guardi, you can see a style take form, and perhaps exhaust itself.
A single painting by Pietro Bellotti, a nephew of Canaletto, shows us the lows of the form, a bland view of the Entrance to the Grand Canal, in which the materiality of the city seems to dissipate in a haze of blue and green, and the water reflects the windows of the wrong building. Works by Pietro's older brother, Bernardo Bellotto, stand up very well against his uncle's best work, with the exception of Bellotto's dogs, which look more like monkeys than canines. The strength of this show is its limited horizon, which lets the viewer focus on these kinds of details.
Without unduly stacking the deck against Canaletto's rivals, the National Gallery exhibition revives poor Canaletto's reputation at least a little. Some of the later paintings made after he returned from London, often dismissed as inferior, are stunning, including a view of St. Mark's through the darkened arch of an arcade. And at his best, as in the Rio dei Mendicanti (ca. 1723), a brooding view of one of the city's least traveled byways, Canaletto even manages to make Venice disappear. Yes, there's a canal, and there are gondolas on it. But if you can ignore both, the painting really speaks of poverty, isolation and cheap housing, like one might find in 19th-century Paris or early 20th-century New York.
This was not the Venice that British lords and ladies wanted to take home with them, if they saw it at all. But it's proof that Canaletto's vision was sharper and more questioning than it seems in the sunny souvenirs of the 1730s. Is it enough to call him a great artist? Yes, within limits, and largely ones he crafted.
Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals is on display at the East Wing of the National Gallery through May 30. The exhibition is free and open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.