“Vedute” show explores Canaletto’s etchings of Venice

by Amelia Rosch | 10/19/15 6:07pm

Some of the details are so minute that the Hood Museum provides magnifying glasses so that visitors can see them all as they are transported to mid-18th century Venice, from the well-known sites such as the Grand Canal to imaginary landscapes. The Hood Museum’s exhibition “Canaletto’s ‘Vedute’ Prints” captures the complete collection of etchings created by Italian landscape artist and “grand master painter” Giovanni Canal, better known as “Canaletto.”

Bonnie MacAdam, who was one of the curators of the show, said that Canaletto was most famous for his paintings of Venice’s grand monuments. She said that these paintings were meant for tourists, especially English men visiting Venice as part of their “grand tours.” She said that Canaletto made the prints in the exhibit in the early 1740s as part of an experiment with etching.

“He showed absolute incredible virtuosity with the medium,” she said.

MacAdam said that the etchings in the exhibit are both large and small and show a range of scenes from better-known monuments to those made up of disparate elements that did not actually exist in Venice.

She said that the etchings on display tend to focus on a more “intimate” view of Venice and give a sense of the everyday people who inhabited the city.

“Some are accurate, and some are more imaginative,” she said. “He might show a church that did exist but then create a different setting for it. He was experimenting in a way that he did not in his paintings.”

She said that the etchings give visitors a sense of the skills that Canaletto had with the medium, especially in capturing light and shadow.

“They really are full of wonderful details,” she said. “You can get a sense of variety of lines he used to create the scenes of the city and countryside and the wider [Republic of Venice.] They are also strangely full of light. They have an almost shimmering quality to them.”

Studio art professor Louise Hamlin said that Canaletto’s work shows an amazing level of detail. She said that she was struck by how he managed to combine the smaller details with the overall composition of the pieces and the sense of humor his etchings display.

“Canaletto’s prints show an equal measure of skill and spontaneity, restraint and delight, representation and invention,” she said. “Though the prints may seem quite formal at first, closer viewing — magnifying glasses provided by the museum are great for this — reveals a very personal mark and often humor.”

MacAdam said that Canaletto’s etchings display a technical mastery down to the mark making and the use of line.

“No one in the 18th century was doing etchings of Venice like this,” she said. “They are quite extraordinary in terms of technique. We have one panel on the technique and details on how he’d use straight lines or hooked lines and through that, he’s able to convey different atmospheric qualities and different architectural features and textures. They really are a tour de force.”

She said that her favorite piece in the collection, “Imaginary View of Venice (The House with the Inscription and the House with the Peristyle)” shows an unexpected side of Venice. She said that viewers can consider the piece as either two separate halves or one complete composition, and that on the surface it shows a normal scene of houses and boats but on the right side, there is a mysterious man staring over the city.

She said that she enjoys the painting because it highlights Canaletto’s interest in the less-painted aspects of Venice while showcasing his technical skill.

“The way he conveys light and how he creates depth with the contrast in light and shadow is remarkable,” she said. “The cloud effect he creates with lines and leaving parts of the paper exposed is amazing. The combination of buildings and the idea that this isn’t a place that tourists would seek out makes it especially interesting.”

MacAdam said that while most of Canaletto’s prints focus on Venice itself, there are some that focus on areas outside of the city which show Canaletto’s wilder side.

Senior curator of collections and academic programming Katherine Hart said that the exhibition was part of the Hood Museum’s continual efforts to honor the legacy of Adolph Weil ’35, who was an early member of the Hood Museum’s board of overseers.

She said that Weil donated his a large collection of prints and etchings by artistic “grand masters” to the museum. Former Hood curator Hillary Goldfarb put together two earlier shows based on Weil’s prints — “Humanist Vision,” which displayed Weil’s collection of prints by Rembrandt and the exhibit “Fatal Consequences,” which included prints by Francisco de Goya and Jacques Callot.

Hart said that before his death, Weil made plans to donate to his collection of prints to the Hood. She said that Weil’s donation helped raise the Hood’s profile and that the museum wanted to create an exhibition that took a comprehensive look at part of Weil’s collection.

“It really put us on the map in terms of prints by the old masters,” she said. “It is one of the richest gifts we have ever received at the Hood. It was a transformative gift for us, and we have tried to honor it.”

Hart said that the Canaletto exhibition took about three years to plan. She said that it took longer to plan for this exhibition because of the collaboration with the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts — Weil was from Montgomery, Alabama, and the museum there has parts of his collection.

“It was natural to co-plan with them because this is for his 100th birthday,” she said.

MacAdam said that in addition to the Canaletto etchings, the exhibition also holds maps to help orient visitors to where in Venice the etchings were set, as well as a collection of works by American artists responding to Venice, including pieces by James McNeill Whistler.

Hamlin said that seeing Canaletto and Whistler’s pieces next to each other created an interesting contrast.

“Whistler’s etchings, 140 years later, were more personal, intimate, and less technically strict,” she said. “Canaletto created atmosphere through inventive marks that covered the entire plate, while Whistler’s resulted in part from how much detail he left out.”

As part of the exhibition, the Hood Museum will also hold a lecture on “Viewing 18th-Century Venice with Canaletto and Casanova” by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ European chair Frederick Ilchman. The lecture will be on Friday at 5 p.m.

On Oct. 6, Hamlin give a gallery talk on how Canaletto’s etchings were created and how they compare to etchings by one of his contemporaries, the artist Giovanni Piranesi.

The exhibit is on display until Dec. 6.