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National Gallery's Canaletto exhibit a portrait of Venetian art-world duels

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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:06 PM

He was born Giovanni Antonio Canal, but you may call him Canaletto.

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And canals are what he did - over and over again. During a prolific career that spanned a good chunk of the 18th century, Canaletto turned out meticulous paintings of Venice's bustling waterways, good-natured gondoliers and well-scrubbed quays. He made so many pictures, sold so many of them to foreigners and spawned so many imitators that today his pictures (or those of his rivals) sit in every major museum's collection.

Which is precisely the problem.

Canaletto's ubiquity and his unwavering dedication to his home town means you're as likely to notice them as . . . as . . . Now where's that Leonardo again?

Despite Canaletto's seen-one, seen-so-many-of-'em tendencies, the National Gallery of Art's "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals," opening on Feb. 20, will be the must-see show this spring.

Why? It's not simply because the exhibition gives us 21 of the Italian's Venetian cityscapes and 34 more by his contemporaries. Nor is it the fact that the show includes an intriguing pair of vintage camera obscura - the devices that so many artists used to trace accurate images. And it certainly isn't due to the museum's display of a 35-foot-long gondola, one of the world's oldest, near the show's entrance.

These are good things, to be sure. But they don't amount to great.

What tips the scales toward the triumph of "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals" - and ups the likelihood that we'll be talking about the show for years to come - is its mouthwatering focus on artistic infighting, 18th-century style.

Curator and independent scholar Charles Beddington fleshes out the drama around Canaletto's success - the men he out-painted and those who wished to out-paint him - to craft a robust portrait of the republic's curious art market.

Canaletto and his competitors were known for their vedute - handsomely scaled view paintings depicting Venice's most renowned sights and biggest parties. The vedutisti, as they were known, painted endless renditions of the sunny Piazza San Marco, the gondola-clogged Grand Canal and the pomp of feast days and diplomacy.

Their pictures were, in essence, large-scale picture postcards.

A good many were bought by wealthy Brits traveling south on the Grand Tour or sojourning in Venice on business. Germans, Scandinavians and Spaniards bought them, too, but "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals" concentrates on the troves shipped across the English Channel by British aristocrats.


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