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Title

: View of the Grand Canal by Francesco Guardi

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1957

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
With the acquisition of the view of Venice by Francesco Guardi the Minneapolis Institute of Arts adds to its collection an outstanding example of eighteenth century art. The View of the Grand Canal is a fitting counterpart to the very fine The Attributes of the Arts by Guardi's French contemporary, Chardin, recently purchased by the Institute. The two paintings indicate the growing importance that the art of this period now holds for American museums and collectors.Guardi and Canaletto were the great Venetian vedutisti—artists who painted views of their captivating city for the delectation of its proud inhabitants and the tourists of the age who were attracted to Venice by its unique beauty and the luxury and fantasy of its life. Because of the practical function of the genre—that of a painted souvenir of a particular site, the aristocratic equivalent of the present-day postcard or photograph—the aestheticians of the epoch held the type in rather low esteem. In their own time Canaletto, somewhat older than Guardi, was the more highly prized of the two. His popularity was in part due to the more evident accuracy of his views and the greater ease with which individual structures could be identified.Today this attitude has been modified. The specific landscape, whether of city or countryside, has the same validity as a subject for artistic investigation that the other normally accepted types possess. Canaletto is still greatly admired for his carefully incisive line and his sober, impressively dignified compositions. But in contrast to his earlier inferior role, Guardi's reputation now equals or surpasses Canaletto's. Some of the reasons for this shift in value can be recognized. Impressionist paintings sharpened eyes to the point of understanding Guardi's sparkling vitality of brushwork, his magnificently evocative, shimmering atmosphere. Expressionist art has fostered awareness of the individuality and freedom of his interpretations of Venice, when juxtaposed with Canaletto's more restrained and factual representations. The Institute veduta is a superlative example of Guardi's art at full maturity, a vision of the city which captures with the utmost intensity its luminous splendor and its bizarre magic.In this view, Guardi painted a section of the Grand Canal,1 the main artery that bisects the city as it winds through it from the modern railroad station to the basin before St. Mark's Square. The view comprises nearly half the stretch lying between the break in its direction at the Rialto Bridge, the major of the three that span the canal, and the next break, closer tot he Piazza of St. Mark, which occurs at the point where the Rio Nuovo enters the Grand Canal. In the left foreground are two palaces which incorporate remains of Byzantine structures; they are, presumably, from their position, the Palazzi Businello-Guistinian and Barzizza. Behind them, partly covered by the lower buildings that line the Riva del Vin, the Rialto Bridge is seen. On the right, the campanile of San Bartolommeo, erected in 1747, is the first element of architectural consequence on that side of the bridge. To its right, in turn, are the dark façade of the Palazzo Dolfin-Manin (now the Banca d'Italia) and the light, Gothic façade of the Palazzo Bembo. In the right foreground are the Byzantine façades (before their later restoration) of the Palazzi Farsetti-Dandolo and Loredan-Corner Piscopia, which together now constitute the Municipio.The afternoon sun falls from the left and front, covering much of the architecture on the left with deep shadow, and leaving most of the structures on the right in full sunlight. Between the wide flanks of the swollen canal, the water is calm, almost limpid, reflecting strongly the sequence of light and dark palace façades, and stirred only the brisk strokes of the gondoliers. The sky is soft, subtly varied, darkening slightly toward the right, where it is broken by a few fleecy clouds. A continuous flow of traffic animates the canal, coming to a climax in a group of barges in the left foreground.In reality, just these aspects of Venice—the luminous interplay of air and water, the iridescent vibrating colors, the continuous flicker of light and shadow in its palpitating atmosphere, the nervous animation of the tiny figures in gondolas and barges—are Guardi's subject. His concept can justifiably be called a purely pictorial one, in which the tonal harmony and coloristic beauty, the striking massings of dark and light, and his crisp, brilliant accents, are all important. He does not hesitate to sacrifice literal exactitude to this aim. His perspective shifts its vanishing-point from one building to the next. He arbitrarily darkens the façades of the Municipio, and adds a small non-existent second story to both palaces, to give this repoussoir the darkness and height necessary to balance the more powerful one on the left. The campanile of San Bartolommeo, which is such a perfectly placed and proportioned accent in the skyline, is unduly heightened, if my memory is correct, for the same formal, aesthetic reasons.2 It is not a matter of Guardi's being unfaithful to Venice; rather, to over-emphasize the contrast between him and Canaletto, his vision may be called a painter's, whereas Canaletto's might almost be termed an architect's.This painting is one of two versions of the subject by Guardi known to me. The other view, in the Brera Gallery in Milan,3 is seen from a slightly greater distance, incorporating on the right edge part of the façade of Palazzo Grimani. In the latter painting, the boats in the Canal are considerably changed throughout, although a similar group of barges occupies a position comparable to that of the large group in the left foreground of the Minneapolis view. Nevertheless, the differences so easily noticeable between the two are due to changes much more profound than those in staffage elements and a slight shift in the position from which the view was painted.The Brera veduta is clear and placid throughout. Light is generalized, and covers surfaces quite evenly; shadows are few and muted. The sky shows only the slightest variation. The surface of the Canal is uniformly covered with tiny ripples, and their over-all pattern is barely disturbed by the boats moving through them. Architectural forms stand out much more distinctly. The darkest accents occur in the rather large gondolas in the foreground. Unmistakably here clarity of form, the blond tonality, the relatively restrained representation, stand in the fullest opposition to the pictorial opulence of the Minneapolis painting, with its richly varied and dramatic contrasts of light and shade, its sensuously exciting surfaces and atmosphere. In this comparison the Brera painting appears meticulous in its concern for truthfulness, while the Minneapolis version has become a Stimmungsbild, a view created to entrance the spirit through its poetically evocative mood. The differences, in other words, are so extreme that the historian of art must assume some major phenomenon, like a considerable lapse of time in the artist's career, to have been responsible for the change.The main outlines of Guardi's life are known, as are the most significant developments in his artistic career. Nevertheless, the careful placement of a single painting or drawing into its proper chronological position in his oeuvre is by no means easy. Not any contemporary records exist, and the very few that refer categorically to works of art are vague, with one or two exceptions. He did not date either paintings or drawings, and he infrequently signed them. The works that can be dated accurately by their subject, such as the series done to commemorate the visit of Pope Pius VI to Venice in 1782, are not numerous, and they comprise several scenes that are atypical for his work in general. The situation is made considerably more difficult because of his habit of frequently using earlier sources—his own drawings or paintings, Canaletto's, or prints—during his later years, often to a degree where the untangling of the complex problem can become a genuine puzzle.Francesco Guardi was one of a family of painters. His father, Domenico, came to Venice shortly after 1700 from Vienna, where he had studied and worked. The family originated in the Trentino, where its patent of nobility had been recognized in the 17th century. Francesco was the third child, born in 1712 to Domenico and his wife Maria Pichler, from Bolzano, whom he had married in Vienna. Francesco's older brother, Gianantonio, was born in 1692, followed in 1702 by his sister Cecelia, who was later to marry Giambattista Tiepolo. Domenico died in 1716, and Gianantonio then became the head of the family and of the atelier. Under Gianantonio, the studio painted figure-scenes, either religious altarpieces or panels, or secular subjects of mythological, allegorical or historical nature. For several decades, Gianantonio appears to have been the leader, with Francesco participating more and more extensively in the actual execution of commissions as his mastery grew. The chief change in Francesco's career occurred around 1760, when Gianantonio died. On May 21, 1764, Senator Pietro Gradenigo noted in his diaries that “Francesco Guardi, painter from the parish of SS. Apostoli on the Fondamente Nuove, a good pupil of the famous Canaletto, having succeeded very well with the aid of the Camera Obscura in painting two fairly large canvases ordered by an English visitor, the views of the Square of St. Mark looking toward the Church and the Clock-tower and of the Rialto Bridge and the structures on the left towards Cannaregio, has exhibited them today under the arcades of the Procurazie Nuove and has obtained universal applause.”4The qualities mentioned earlier in discussing the Brera view of the Grand Canal—its linear precision, light colors, diffused light, and concern for factual truth—are, when examined on the basis of this quotation, clearly those of an artist strongly influenced by Canaletto. The Brera painting and its pendant, a view of the Canal Grande just beyond the Rialto looking towards the Cannaregio, also in the Brera, are commonly regarded as early works, coming from the 1760s. The majority of recent critics assume Francesco's interest in the veduta began around 1760; it is probably more than a coincidence that it concurred with Gianantonio's death. The elder artist's dominance removed, his younger brother presumably felt free to investigate a type of painting he instinctively found attractive. It was a kind, moreover, that Canaletto had demonstrated could be satisfactorily remunerative t the artist. From that time on, although he seems not to have given up figure-painting altogether,5 the veduta in all its ramifications—realistic, architectural, or idyllic caprice; painted, sketched, or drawn—became his main theme. He joined forces with the other great view-painters of eighteenth century Italy—Canaletto Bellotto, Panini, and Piranesi—to create one of the most intriguing genres of the period.Canaletto's influence remained the single vital exterior force in Guardi's career throughout his life. To its end he returned frequently to the earlier artist, using his paintings or drawings or the numerous prints after his works as the sources for his own paintings. This relationship is one of the reasons why caution must often be taken in dating a view by Guardi on the basis of its topography; the appearance of a building may reflect an earlier moment in its history as depicted by Canaletto, rather than its condition at the actual moment in time when Guardi painted it.Nevertheless, Guardi was temperamentally unlike his older contemporary, and he soon evolved a different style, with differing aims and technique. He moved consistently towards a freer handling and a more personal expression, in which the objective, near-neutrality of Canaletto turned into a vivacious impression of the view. Line grew more tremulous and broken; brush-strokes looser, more uneven. The painted area became much more varied. Colors tended somewhat to lose their local hue, the color area being flecked with tiny and subtly changing strokes that created an opalescent shimmer. The blurring and suppression of many details resulted in the larger areas encompassing bigger units of architecture or space, often with bolder alternation in the play of light and shade. Guardi began to accentuate a few of the minor details, pulling out highlights so that they become sharp streaks on the surface. Figures became smaller, but they gained in energetic tension as he emphasized angular, irregular breaks in bodily movement and in drapery. This evolution in the history of his veduta-painting was apparently a rapid one, since he had already been painting very much in that manner in his later figure-scenes, and it was presumably only Canaletto's temporarily overwhelming domination that submerged his own technique for the short time when the two artists came into personal contact.As a fully developed artist Guardi became most sensitive to the peculiar atmosphere of Venice and its enormously potent effect upon the city's architecture. The continuous flicker of light on surfaces from the water of its ever-present canals, that animates façades continuously; the damp that creeps into every Venetian building from its moisture-laden air, to enhance colors in sunlight; the soft, cool sunlight hovering over the lagoon-encircled city: all these combined for him to create an ambiance so strong that only through it could Venice exist. In fact, Guardi was no less truthful to Venice than Canaletto had been. The intangible Venice that he recaptured is as powerful today in its sensuous enchantment as is the pure fantasy of its architecture.The View of the Grand Canal in Minneapolis typifies this high-point in Guardi's career. Because of the dearth of documentary evidence no more than an approximate date can be offered for it. I believe that the painting comes from the mid-1780's. Several fully analogous characteristics are found in the series done by Guardi in 1782 for Peter Edwards to commemorate four incidents in the visit of Pope Pius VI to Venice: the extremely rich, vibrating paint; the extraordinary intensification in variety of surfaces; the vehement chiaroscural contrasts. Perhaps closest of all to it is a variation, one of several, on the same scene, in which the Pope blesses the city from a temporary stand erected before the Scuola di San Marco in the Square of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. This small view, in the National Gallery in Washington, represents only a façade of the School with the temporary stand before it occupied by spectators.6 The Minneapolis and Washington paintings are especially close to one another in the bold drama of their light and shade and in the comparative restriction of their colors. In the Washington example a range of electric blues dominates the soft browns of the architecture; in the Minneapolis view the reverse is true. Here the brown and cream-beiges of the architecture, heightened with flushes of orange-brown and red-brown, predominate over the delicate green-blue and lilac-gray-blue of water and sky. A second painting in Washington, depicting the Cannaregio with its distinctive triple arch,7 is extremely close to the scene in Minneapolis in the treatment of water and of the facades of the building that flank the canal. Although quieter in mood and considerably lighter in effect—dark shadows hardly exist—it must be very close in time to the present painting.8 Many of the romantic capricci, which Shaw believes to be late and to come from the 80s,9 are again very much like the present painting in spirit and execution.10This period of Francesco's activity merges imperceptibly into that of his last views, in which one encounters the remarkable economy of means and strengthening of spiritual content that the vary late works of great masters frequently show. His haunting and deceptively simple view of the lagoon before Venice, in the Poldi-Pezzoli Museum in Milan,11 so quiet and yet so powerful in its expressive lyricism, is perhaps the greatest of these last vedute, but others, like the imaginary lagunary view in Verona,12 are almost equally suggestive in their poetic beauty. The exquisite view of an island in the lagoon, in the Borletti Collection in Milan,13 perhaps stands between the group comprising the view in Minneapolis and the other including the very late ones; it is simpler than the former, somewhat more detailed than the latter.With regard to the painting in Minneapolis one piece of evidence exists which gives an insight into Guardi's method of composition at this time. The group of barges in the left foreground, the most prominent accessory in the painting, was based on the beautiful drawing in the collection of Mr. John Nicholas Brown of Providence.14 In the finished painting the barges seem to fit inevitably into their position, to be grouped just as Francesco saw them on the spot, with their inhabitants unconcernedly carrying out their accustomed daily activities. The correspondence between the painted group and the drawing is so close, however, that the former has to be thoroughly dependent upon the latter, which may actually have been a study from life. This last statement can be no more than an assumption, in any case, because, even if it were true, Guardi has already subjected the group in the drawing to an over-all aesthetic discipline—its rhythms are too finely adjusted, too well-balanced, to be those of nature itself. The only modifications apparent in the shift from drawing to painting are the omission of the pennant flying from the past of the largest boat, possibly left out because its presence would cut into the window of the palace behind it, and the slight alteration in the contour of the sail on the boat to the extreme left.This same group of barges is found in another painting, a view of the Dogana, in the Wallace Collection in London.15 In the latter instance, the barge on the left has acquired a pennant and the anchoring pole has been shifted into the foreground; here, too, the group seems thoroughly at home. Because of its greater compositional weight, the group in the Wallace view is more boldly and heavily painted throughout. The Wallace painting is also fairly late, I believe, and close to the Minneapolis veduta; perhaps it is slightly earlier. The drawing is likewise a fully mature one, and may not antedate by many years either of the two paintings in which it was subsequently used.This incident makes clear that many of the mature and late vedute must have been painted in Guardi's studio, and that by then he depended largely upon his memory and upon earlier representations of various kinds, rather than sketching the views on the spot as he had done when he began to paint vedute.16 The present painting almost certainly exemplifies such a procedure, and its factual errors, like the additional story in the two palaces on the right, are paralleled by similar “faults” in other works of the period. Guardi's version by 1775 was, like Watteau's, that of a poet embroidering upon reality, selecting and transmuting fragments of the truth into a musical harmony.When he died in 1793 Guardi was the last active painter of importance n Venice. Canaletto had died in 1798. Tiepolo in a sense vanished even earlier, since he spent the decade between 1761 and his death in 1770 in far-away Madrid. Pietro Longhi died in 1785. Guardi was lucky to have died when he did; only four years later the Venetian Republic collapsed ingloriously as Napoleon's army approached the city. With this, the political, economic, and cultural individuality of Venice ended; after that, it shared the history and fate of Italy as a whole. Venice the city survived, to fascinate artists down to our own day, although none has been as successful as Guardi in capturing its native essence. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is most fortunate in possessing one of Guardi's masterpieces, in which he conjured up magically the delight of its incorporeal yet indestructible charm and the mysterious vitality that great cities have for the generations of men who create and inhabit them.Hylton A. Thomas
Associate Professor of History of Art, University of MinnesotaEndnotes
  1. 25 3/4” x 35 7/16”. William H. Dunwoody Fund with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Theodore W. Bennett, 1957. Formerly in the collections of Charles T. Yerkes, Harry Payne Whitney, and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.
  2. In a drawing of a regatta of gondolas, covering a wider expanse of this same section of the Grand Canal, J. Byam Shaw, in his excellent monograph (The Drawings of Francesco Guardi, London, 1951), notes (p. 64, no. 26) that the same campanile has been “greatly exaggerated.”
  3. Brera Gallery Catalogue, 1950, no. 242, p. 130; reproduced, G. Damerini, L'Arte di Francesco Guardi, Venice, 1912, pl. IX.
  4. Excerpts from Senator Gradenigo's diaries which deal with art have been published by L. Livan, Notizie d'arte tratte dai notari e dagli annali di N. H. Pietro Gradenigo, Venice, 1942. The present notice occurs on p. 106. Shaw suggests, for various and sound reasons, that the View of the Rialto in the Metropolitan Museum of New York (71.119), which measures 21 x 33 3/4 in., may well be one of the paintings mentioned (Shaw, op. cit., pp. 59-60, nos. 12, 13).
  5. At least one drawing, a design for a stage-curtain, comes from the end of his life. (Rep., R. Pallucchini, I Disegni del Guardi al Museo Correr di Venezia, Venice, 1943, p. 137.)
  6. Washington, National Gallery, Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture, 1941, no. 240, pp. 93-4; rep., Book of Illustrations, p. 125.
  7. Ibid., no. 224, p. 93; rep., ibid., p. 124.
  8. A second similar variation on the papal stand and the Scuola di San Marco is also much lighter in color. (Rep., V. Moschini, Francesco Guardi, Milan, n.d., no. 160.) Because of the topical interest of the subject, it is most probable that all the variations on the four papal subjects were done soon after the original quartet was completed in 1782.
  9. Shaw, op. cit., p. 31.
  10. For example, the spirited one in Verona, rep., Moschini, op. cit. No. 126.
  11. Rep., ibid., no. 182.
  12. Rep., ibid., no. 173.
  13. Rep., ibid., no. 174.
  14. Mr. Brown has very kindly permitted his drawing to be reproduced in the present article.
  15. Rep., Moschini, op. cit., no. 139. The latter relationship was pointed out by Otto Benesch, Venetian Drawings of the Eighteenth Century in America, New York, 1947, p. 40, no. 65.
  16. This phenomenon has already been noted; see, for example, Shaw, op. cit., pp. 34ff.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Francesco Guardi, Italian, 1712-1793. View of the Grand Canal (detail), ca. 1785. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4” x 35 7/16”. William H. Dunwoody Fund with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Theodore W. Bennett, 1957.
  2. Francesco Guardi, Italian, 1712-1793. View of the Grand Canal, ca. 1785. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4” x 35 7/16”. William H. Dunwoody Fund with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Theodore W. Bennett, 1957.
  3. Francesco Guardi, Italian, 1712-1793. View of the Grand Canal (detail), ca. 1785. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4” x 35 7/16”. William H. Dunwoody Fund with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Theodore W. Bennett, 1957.
  4. Francesco Guardi, Italian, 1712-1793. A Group of Fishing Boats. Pen, bistre and wash on paper, 10 1/2” x 17 1/4”. Collection of Mr. John Nicholas Brown, Providence, Rhode Island.
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Source: Hylton A. Thomas, "View of the Grand Canal by Francesco Guardi," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 46, no. 4 (Winter, 1957): 53-65.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009