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VISUAL ARTS REVIEW

Not just postcards from London

Exhibit highlights Canaletto's exquisite work during 10-year stay in England

NEW HAVEN -- When your typical upper-class 18th century Brit went on his obligatory grand tour of Europe's great cultural attractions, one of the souvenirs he just had to bring home was a painting by Giovanni Antonio Canal, a.k.a., Canaletto. Born in 1697, the son of a theatrical scene painter, Canaletto was famous throughout Europe for extraordinarily lucid views of his hometown of Venice, and his works were especially coveted in England.

This became a problem for Canaletto in the 1740s, however, as the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) began to discourage continental tourism, and his business fell off. Since his most reliable clients could not come to him, he decided to go to them. At age 49, Canaletto pulled up stakes and moved to London. There he stayed for almost 10 years painting bridges, buildings, castles and the Thames River under mellow, sunny skies, making London look like another Mediterranean city. In 1755, he returned to Venice and stayed until he died in 1768.

The fruits of Canaletto's English labors are on display in an absorbing exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art called "Canaletto in England: A Venetian Artist Abroad, 1746-1755." The show of more than 60 paintings and drawings was curated by Charles Beddington, an independent scholar who, judging by his exhaustively -- and exhaustingly -- factual catalog essay, knows as much about what Canaletto did in England and what subsequently became of his paintings as anyone alive.

Most art historians agree that Canaletto did his best work as a young man in Venice. The Yale show does not disprove this consensus. But he did make some impressive and beautiful paintings in England. One of the most enthralling of his efforts greets viewers at the start of the exhibition. Measuring just under 4-by-8-feet, it offers a panoramic view of Saint James Park, where fashionable people went to see and be seen. It's a captivating, albeit curiously unremarkable, scene. A broad plane of dirt and grass fills most of the foreground, with part of a canal and a few nondescript trees edging in from the left. Blocky brick buildings described in near-microscopic detail extend diagonally from the near right into the distance on the left, and a bright, slightly hazy blue sky fills the upper half of the canvas.

Little people, some in groups of two or three and many by themselves, are sprinkled throughout the picture. In the far-away center, before a low, rambling building called the Old Horse Guards, a regiment of soldiers stands in formation; you could count every one if you wanted to. To the right, two servants are beating an immense carpet that they've hung over the railing of a stone staircase.

When you draw near to the painting's surface, you see how carefully and with what variety it has been constructed. Made of calligraphic dollops, each little person is a miniature painterly abstraction. Distant buildings are essays in geometric abstraction composed of dots, dashes and fine, straight lines. Step back, and the abstraction coalesces into a vivid illusionism.

Mid day light, warm and dry, unifies the scene. So consistent is the light and so apparently perfect the perspective that the effect is almost photographic. Some people say that like Vermeer, Canaletto used a camera obscura to achieve his realistic effects, and when you see them reproduced in books or magazines, some of his paintings easily can be mistaken for photographs.

Regardless of his technical methods, Canaletto's empiricism has great appeal to modern eyes. His light anticipates that of Impressionism, and his acutely observant descriptions look forward to the photo-derived Precisionism of Charles Sheeler, the Photorealism of Richard Estes , and the cityscapes of Rackstraw Downes, a contemporary realist who does not use photographic aids. And the tension between the illusory and the abstract, realized most exquisitely in Canaletto's deftly linear ink drawings, has been a central preoccupation for painters throughout the history of modern art.

Critics have compared Canaletto's paintings to scenic postcards because they depict celebrated destinations like Westminster Bridge, which he painted and drew repeatedly, Westminster Abbey, Eton College, and Warwick Castle. But he does not sensationalize or cheapen his subjects. They just seem like part of the real world, no more and no less.

Canaletto was not always true to his best talents. About a quarter of the Yale exhibition presents his efforts in a popular genre called the capriccio, a type of fantasy painting in which real and fictitious buildings and landscapes from different times and places are combined into imaginary, Italianate scenes.

The capricci are dreamy but vapid. In one we view a white, Palladian-style domed church through the archway of an old stone ruin that is partly overgrown by shrubbery. The contrast between the idealized church and the decaying arch is evocative; it's a poem about time and eternity. But Canaletto did not apply himself to this type of picture so intensely as he did to real-world scenes. Painted in a broader, formulaic manner, the capricci are like studies for fancy wallpaper motifs.

There are no poetic cliches in the paintings for which Canaletto is most admired, but there are moods of contemplative tenderness. In "The City Seen Through an Arch of Westminster Bridge," a smallish canvas measuring about 2-by-3-feet, we look out from under a great cavernous archway built of wooden timbers to hold up a part of Westminster Bridge that was still under construction. The arch frames a luminous view of the Thames, where dozens of boats of all kinds and sizes go this way and that on its calm, slightly rippled surface. Beyond the water, the low cityscape, overseen by the great white dome and twin steeples of St. Paul's Cathedral, spreads across the horizon under a peaceful, opalescent sky. It is a thoroughly modern, secular picture, but it feels as though flooded by divine beneficence.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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