Skip to main content

The Other Canaletto

Bernardo Bellotto (Italian - View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana - Google Art Project
View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana, ca.1743

Born in Venice on January 30, 1721 Bernardo Bellotto was the nephew and student of his famous uncle Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Canaletto. Bellotto's style has a stronger use of chiaroscuro and tighter integration of the landscape whereas his uncle focused more on Venetian architecture as a distinctive splendor within the landscape. Bellotto was equally fascinated with old alleyways and crumbling Roman ruins as his Venetian roots. The other important distinction is that Canaletto remained in Venice for most of his career, venturing out only to London while Bellotto travelled to other parts of Italy and also to Germany, Austria, and Poland. Bellotto also returned on occasion to the vedute tradition of capriccio from Pannini, or painting from imagination rather than life, something Canaletto only depicted in his etchings.

Above in View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana we can see Bellotto's informal and approachable eye, contrasting the side of the building with arched window columns to the wide expanse of the canal with the beautiful church of the Santa Maria della Salute off to the right, bathed in warm sunlight. This is an interesting composition, quite modern in its approach in how he juxtaposes a vertical with a perspective line, a facade on the left with a long row of buildings to the right. Note how the gondolas seem to be pointing at both sides of the composition to make our eyes travel left and right. The subtle reflection of the buildings in the water adds depth to the gorgeous greens and blues. Look closely at how each character is doing something, even though faintly suggested in detail. Bellotto has unwittingly created a time machine for us to enjoy forever, a moment as real as we can imagine.

Bernardo Bellotto, called Canaletto - Vienna, Dominican Church - Google Art Project
Vienna, Dominican Church, 1760

Look at the mood of this simple scene. Bellotto takes a narrow, busy street and using perspective and chiaroscuro creates a late-afternoon masterpiece. Note once again the high viewpoint. The figures in this painting are full of color and texture, and the way they are arranged tells a story between the social classes, especially in the foreground figures. However, it is the architecture itself that is the main character in this scene, painted with textural detail that contrasts Baroque on the left vs a rather modern looking building with long rows of square windows on the right. The age and grime are apparent in the lower regions of the buildings near the street level. The long shadow falling on the building at right, with the shadows of the statues large and looming against the starkness of the empty walls, is what adds real depth. And to think that this was painted ten years before the birth of Beethoven.

Capricho arquitectónico con un palacio - Bernardo Bellotto
Architectural Caprice with a Palace, 1766

This wistful scene is a beautiful balance of nature and architecture. Bellotto uses warm, late afternoon sunlight to bathe the uppermost region of this invented palace, while below Bellotto creates a sense of scale with figures wading and fishing with horses and livestock. A serene peacefulness is created here by the contrast of the distinctive lines of the building with the softer, organic shapes of the trees and rolling hills. Also the contrast of large shapes on the right with smaller shapes on the left receding into atmospheric perspective creates depth. The sky is tinged with warm hues of pink in the clouds adding harmony to the verdant landscape. There is a visual musicality to this painting, a sense of harmony with nature and design in the elements that Bellotto has mastered by pulling us into his world gently with details. Even the tiny flock of birds flying off into the distance adds depth to this scene, and would feel bare and empty without it. In Bellotto's eye, the landscape is beauty but something is sanctuary. And all the elements are like characters in a story.

Bellotto, Bernardo - View of Pirna from the Sonnenstein Castle
View of Pirna from the Sonnenstein Castle, ca.1750

A strong diagonal incline with complementary colors against a vast blue sky, Bellotto takes a uncommon vista and compels us to watch it. There is some complex perspective going on here due to the various directions of each building is facing and the different planes they are one...even the furthest houses in the distance observe a stringent perspective. Bellotto again contrasts line with natural shapes, this time bathing this scene in an early morning light. Even the winding fence leads our eye directly to the main structure on top of the hill. The use of green here to counterbalance the intricate detail of the town off to the left is simple yet visually striking everytime we see it. Sadly, this quaint German town has had a long string of bad luck, historically, from early Swedish invasion to Nazi holocaust horrors, yet in this particular moment in time Bellotto has captured tranquility and innocence.

Bernardo Bellotto - Ruins of the Forum, Rome - Google Art Project
Ruins of the Forum, Rome, 1743

I love the sense of anachronism in this painting: Romans in the 18th century admiring an ancient Roman ruin. What is humourous is how Bellotto paints these figures as caricatures up close, yet from a distance seem perfect. Note again the complex perspective and intricate shadows in this painting. The atmospheric perspective is breathtaking, showcasing how Bellotto fully mastered color temperatures of shadow and highlight areas that up close seem nothing more than squiggly lines and blobs of paint. Bellotto's figures at right gathering water from the well are in shadow, forming an effect repoussoir to the late afternoon sun raking across this veduta of architecture and half-empty Roman ruins. What strikes me as fascinating is how Bellotto takes such fastidious care in each one of his tiny background figures doing something to heighten the naturalness of his scenes. His social commentary is subtle yet notable, something today is completely lacking in.

Bellotto Self portrait
Self-portrait as Venetian ambassador, 1756

A gorgeous painting, here Bellotto proves himself to be something more than even his uncle was not, which was a great painter of people also. The blotchy figures are nonexistent here. Confident and aristocratic, he displays himself nobly amidst a stunning background that he frames in a massive arch. I am not sure where this painting is depicting, probably somewhere in Poland...if anyone knows please leave me a comment. Bellotto may have been obscured under the shadow of his uncle, but it is clear that his powers of observation and genius for composition and perspective proved he didn't merely continue the family tradition. He surpassed it.


Popular posts from this blog

More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri

Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this …


Nymphs and Satyr, 1873

If there is one artist today that hardly needs an introduction, it would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau, supreme giant of 19th century Academic art. Born on November 30, 1825 in La Rochelle on the southwest of France, his talent would define the era he lived in only to fall into obscurity for decades after his death in 1905 until as recent as the early 1980's, shockingly. Today he has the distinction of being lionized by the Art Renewal Center as one of the greatest artists of all time while at the other end of the spectrum vilified by modernists as artificially perfect and sentimental. In fact it is quite rare to see such polarization over an artist of a calibre like Bouguereau, whose bravura is difficult to equal yet at the same time thematically his work admittedly tends toward women and children, a subject matter that sold well and he had endless patience for. Over the vast array of his oeuvre, some 820 paintings, I have tried to find some of his very b…

René-Antoine Houasse, French Classical Master

Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens, 1689

Born in 1645 in Paris, René-Antoine Houasse was a French painter who worked in the Château de Versailles under his teacher, Charles Le Brun. Despite the initial impression of Classical formality, Houasse actually was quite musical and rhythmic in his compositions and had a very French palette. His figures are quite sculptural while retaining an elegance and grace regardless of gender.

In the above Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens, Houasse divides the painting with light to add a stark drama to an otherwise Classically formal composition. Taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the first king of Athens, King Cecrops was looking for a patron god or goddess for his beautiful city, and both Mineva and Neptune fought to win the favor of the gods. Neptune creates the sea by striking his mighty trident into the ground, and while impressive, the gods didn't much care for s…