Is it Canaletto who’s dear to me, or his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto?

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Entry 30, September 18, 2014

I’m pausing in my pursuit of the exact moment when I first met the paintings of Canaletto. Although I’ve made some discoveries, they suggest that the hunt could go on for a long time and still not yield any absolute proof of that first encounter. Besides, as much as I want to continue, I’m worried about my original project: looking every day at new work or works from my Louvre: All the Paintings. After all, Canaletto is a holdover from the Italian section of the book; I’m supposed to be enjoying works from the Northern Schools now. So, I’m moving on.

But I can’t stop without mentioning something I’ve found out. My cherished fondness for Canaletto’s art appears to rest on shaky ground. It’s not that I doubt the beauty of his work; moreover, there’s no question that I’ve seen some of his paintings in person, particularly in London’s Wallace Collection. But my attempt to look back beyond the Wallace into earlier museum visits, particularly ones in North America, in hopes of finding evidence of earlier encounters with the painter, have shown that the paintings I fondly, if vaguely, looked back on as by Canaletto weren’t by him after all but by other artists, Bernardo Bellotto (c. 1721/2-1780), for example, Canaletto’s nephew and student, but also by anonymous contemporaries of Canaletto no more precisely identified than by labels such as “Follower of Canaletto” or “School of Canaletto”, that is, definitely not Canaletto, and, in one instance, a 20th century forger.

In my investigations, I encountered Bernardo Bellotto’s name often, although he isn’t mentioned either in my Louvre book or on the Louvre website as someone represented in the Louvre’s collections. Still, everything I read in other sources encouraged me to think that it wasn’t surprising to come across Bellotto when Canaletto was mentioned. After all, commentaries on Bellotto on various gallery websites, including the National Gallery of London, see the men’s family and work relationships echoed in Bellotto’s early style; the connection, I also learned, was furthered by Bellotto’s practice of signing himself as Bernardo Canaletto or even just Canaletto later in his career, especially when painting outside of Italy. What did surprise me was to find that I already had evidence of this intimate connection in my possession. A review of my small cache of souvenir postcards from early museum trips uncovered four paintings I felt confident were by Canaletto, but I found that two of them from the National Gallery of Canada were actually labeled on the back as by Bellotto. Given the dates of trips, etc., it may well be that these were the earliest works that I admired for the special characteristics I thought of as distinctive to Canaletto; gorgeous colors of sky, water and grand buildings, buildings that command vast open-air gathering places; the tiny but well rendered human figures that inhabited the grandeur, and so on.

entry30chicago23501_3223645A third postcard was even more intriguing: a lovely view of St. Mark’s in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art is identified on the back as by Canaletto the elder, but the website of the museum now identifies it as the work of Bellotto. I’d love to know more about how the change in attribution came about. I’ve included a reproduction of this painting here. I found a somewhat similar switch of attribution in examining an old postcard from the Art Institute of Chicago; a painting entitled Portico with a Lantern, also reproduced here, is identified on the back of the postcard as by Canaletto but on the website is now described as by a “Follower of Canaletto.” Interestingly, both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Museum, collections I visited in my university days, have this same image in the form of an etching that is identified as Canaletto’s, although the Guide to the Permanent Collection from Milwaukee states that this etching, along with many others by Canaletto, is rarely on public display; therefore, I conclude that it’s unlikely that I had ever encountered it until noticing it in the museum guide.

entry30canal506I came across the forger while trying to track down another work by Canaletto, one that my husband remembered as hanging years ago in another Milwaukee gallery, the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum. I was able to confirm, thanks to the Villa Terrace staff, that a painting entitled The Rialto and attributed to “School of Canaletto” had at one time been displayed along with other Italian works in the building’s Great Hall, but that sometime around 2000 the paintings’ owner, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, had had the paintings appraised. The Rialto was deaccessioned; a document reporting the results of the appraisal indicates that the painting was judged to be a forgery and that the famous auction house, Christie’s, where the painting was eventually sent to be sold, dated it as from the 20th century. A reproduction of the painting wasn’t on file at the Villa Terrace, but I was sent a black and white copy by the Milwaukee Museum of Art staff, who also told me that there might be more information available from Christie’s. I would have enjoyed seeing a color reproduction. Judging by some other Canaletto paintings of the same cityscape that I’ve seen on the Web Gallery of Art (blog entry 28), I would have enjoyed being able to compare the forgery with authentic Canalettos for the sake of determining whether the forger had some particular version from the master in mind. But I decided I would stop short, for now, of approaching Christie’s. I’ve included both a link to the black and white reproduction of the forgery (M1962.1180<) and one of Canaletto’s paintings of the Rialto here for comparison.

Perhaps my most intriguing discovery was that my husband thought he recognized the black and white image sent from Milwaukee as the one he had seen years ago. He said, “Well, maybe it’s just a trick of the eye, but I think this is the painting I remember.”

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