Vanishing in Venice

posted in: Painting | 4


Venice had lost influence, power and riches by the 18th century.  English observers noted a picturesque sense of decay. What a surprise to discover a rebirth in painting at this time.  This was the century of Tiepolo, Canaletto, Guardi, Piazzetta, Piranesi and other Venetian artists of great influence and brilliance. How did their paintings reveal a new direction in art? It was not just the light of Venice, the noble antique architecture, the reflecting canals, the artistic heritage of Titian, Veronese, the Bellinis, and Tintoretto, though these were certainly essential contributors to their work.  I think the quintessential element to their work was the influence of their luminous skies amplified and reflected in their lagoons and canals.  Tiepolo and Piazzetta would bring those skies into interior spaces, filling them with whirling clouds. Tiepolo decorated ceilings with golden skies punctuated with perspectively foreshortened figures, divine, noble or mythic.  Canaletto and Guardi carried the light of the skies on to the water and the face of the reflecting architecture.  Tiepolo, Piazzetta and Guardi invested their scenery and figures with bravura emotion from bravura gestures. Canaletto was more timid, constrained by the rationality of linear perspective. All of these artists were masters of linear perspective. All depended on linear perspective to provide credible space for their theatrical imagining.  Their legacy shows us the power of central point perspective when coupled to luminosity and motion. First, consider these examples (example 1 and 2) of Canaletto’s.  Both demonstrate the emotive power of deep space with a central area of convergence. The first painting was created by Canaletto as a young man, the last painting was created three years before his death and was the work which gained him entrance into Venice’s Accademia.  With the first example we feel the air, the atmospheric conditions of Venice. Example two is merely a triumph of perspective with a unified tone.

example 1. march13,27,canaletto,rio de mendicanti, 1720s_edited-3

example 2.march13,27, canaletto, perspective capricicio1765scan0001

All artists need role models, and they are all improved with instruction. Studio instruction gives an artist a platform to either react against or to refine. Canaletto’s father, a scenic designer, provided Canaletto with a model and instruction as did the artist, Carlevarijs.  Canaletto’s approach would be a refinement of the paradigm. Through refinement Canaletto would surpass the work of Carlevarijs.   Francesco Guardi, whose father was also an artist, studied with Canaletto (like Canaletto, Guardi’s brother was also an artist; family traditions are strong career influences). As any trainee in a productive studio, Guardi worked on Canaletto’s production team along with Canaletto’s nephew Bellotto and other Venetian vedusti (view painters) in training. Guardi’s response to Canaletto’s training would be reactionary. He would create expressive paintings, with a greater range of gesture, less deference to linear perspective and the illusory effects of the camera obscura. This more personal approach would cost him some patronage and account for the poverty of his final years.   Expressionism has a smaller audience than more literally transcriptive artworks.  Emotion is more challenging than simple cognition. Consider this late example (example 3) of Guardi’s of a fire in Venice.  The organization of the painting does not rely upon a single vortex of linear perspective for its theatrical power. It relies on the energy of the event, the bystanders’ emotional witnessing as they are arranged in a line across the bottom of the painting. Guardi uses linear perspective in cubing the buildings behind the flames but not as the central unifying structure. The Sky with its dark billows extends the motion of the fire.  Sky and Earth are thematically joined.

example 3.march13,27,guardi, francesco,fire at s marcuola,1790,late work_edited-1

I borrowed the idea of a horizontal band of moving figures across the bottom of the picture in my example 4.  I continue to use the linear perspective vortex as Canaletto and his school did (and Guardi did as well in other paintings) in my arrangement of architecture above the horizontal band of figures. I considered how to amplify the color effects of the electric light of NYC just as the Venetians sought to amplify the color effects of the sky in their scenes. I used layered transparent etching inks which were rolled onto white anodized aluminum and then removed or blended to give a more intense color effect, more glass-like than paint-like.  I layered three colors in sequence just as offset lithography works.  First I layered a transparent yellow, then a blue, then a red. After the layering of the inks I began my manipulations. Canaletto also occasionally used metal substrates. His choice was copper.

example 4.march13,27,times square,ruby light, etching oils,24x24_edited-1

The Venetians borrowed the traditions of the ideal Italian (Roman Claudian and Poussinesque) landscapes when designing their more architectural works.  Canaletto had studied art and architecture in Rome as a young man. Both Canaletto and Guardi also painted landscapes and, capriccios (fantasy landscapes) using Venetian and classical architectural forms and landscape vistas.  Example 5. offers an example of the capriccio which was the product of a team of young  painters, Canaletto, Piazzetta, and Cimbolo.  Observe how the architectural arches act as arching trees to frame the scene. I use the same standard framing design of two vertical flanks, one larger than the other when constructing my landscape in example 6.  The work again relies on layered transparent etching inks rolled on with brayers then manipulated with, fingers, brushes, and squeegees. The Sunset light of the sky colors the red forest floor and flanking trees just as the distant blue trees partake of the color of the cool sky tones.

Example 5.march13,27,canaletto, piazzetta,cimaroli, allegory,1726_edited-1

example  6.march13,27,red sunset, oil on brushed gold anodized aluminum, 24x24, etching oils_edited-1

My last example shows the effect of exaggeration of the historical model of the vortex with a super attenuation of the column of distant light. When listing possibilities for reacting to a tradition as Canaletto and Guardi each did in their own way, I neglected to add a third strategy, the strategy of exaggeration.  Here in example 7, you see that linear perspective vortex exaggerated to create a feeling a greater height through pinching the distance.

example 7.march13,27,florentine perspective, oil on anodized aluminum, 24x24

4 Responses

  1. Keith Brooks

    Painting in Venice offers the advantage of more appealing architecture, but you’ve done a great job with what NYC buildings have to offer!

    We have to learn to transform the subjects we have.

  2. Gail Ingis

    David, as usual your work is magnificent. It is wonderful to read how you think and watch how your work evolves from the masters. I think about those fantastic lectures that I am missing. Thanks for your blog, always great to follow your processing and passing it on to those art seekers.

  3. Gary Berghofer

    Hi David,

    As always very interesting and informative. I love the way you transform that big dynamic city into something exotic and romantic.

    Have you ever thought about switching to acrylics as your main medium? I ask because in one of your DVD’ s you said you thought many of the 19th century painters would paint acrylics.

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