A new exhibition showcases the 18th-century masters of “view painting,” who combined news reportage, political propaganda, and sumptuous cityscape.
Let’s return to an age before photography, before even the Jacquard loom, the ancestor of the computer, let alone Instagram. An age when self-fashioning necessarily involved the hand of an artist to communicate just how exciting, celebrated, and influential were high society’s entertainments. Over the course of the 18th century, a number of virtuosic painters in Italy, and later abroad, transformed the acts of portraying and of being portrayed.
A new exhibition, “Eyewitness Views: Making History in the Eighteenth Century,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art from September 10–December 31, documents the rise of these painters and the over-the-top spectacles they masterfully detailed, whether for an elite dignitary who was audience to (and usually played lead in) the event, or to provide visual records of ritual festivities and the changing urban landscape. These paintings represent a sort of proto-photojournalism with artistic license, a level of theatricality, and political messages both clear and highly nuanced. While the exhibition feature paintings and some supporting works on paper, its breadth is impressive, providing valuable insight into the architecture, sculpture, decorative arts, costume, and especially social customs of the period.
The exhibition is accompanied by a monographic study by Peter Björn Kerber, who was recently appointed Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in England and was formerly Assistant Curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the exhibition opened in May (it will travel to the Cleveland Museum of Art from February 25–May 20, 2018). Kerber has restored significance to these “reportorial views,” as he calls them, which have been historically misunderstood. In doing so, he has also rejuvenated public interest in the masters of the Settecento. Once removed from the context of the domain of their original patrons, these paintings occasionally lost their significance, sometimes almost immediately, to be inventoried only a few years after completion as simple urban vedute (view paintings). The frequency with which meanings were so quickly forgotten is a testament to the exhibition’s success in translating for modern audiences not just the history behind the making of these canvases (some of which have never been seen stateside), but also their changing historiography decades and even centuries later, which takes the viewer right up to the present day and allows one to look for him- or herself.
Making oil-rendered fiction a reality seems to have been the main draw of these painters, and Kerber notes the importance of artistic liberty in enhancing true events: “In a genre that prided itself on the ability to convey reality or at least a plausible version thereof, the painter had to navigate a course between its faithful reproduction, a stage-managed improvement upon it that was often more convincing than reality itself, and the patrons’ desire to commemorate a specific perspective on reality.” As the late art historian John Berger pointed out, the Old Masters knew how to exploit oil paint’s singular properties, which can “suggest objects possessing colour, texture and temperature, filling a space and, by implication, filling the entire world.” Even during these artist’s lifetimes, critics were in agreement over their abilities; Pietro Guarenti, a contemporary of the great Venetian vedute master Canaletto, wrote that the artist painted “with such accuracy and cunning that the eye is deceived and truly believes that it is reality it sees, not a painting.”
While Berger’s reference to temperature has little to do with the actual weather, you could easily make the connection in studying a Canaletto or a Giovanni Paolo Panini. In these works, everyone, including the viewer and even the inanimate setting, has a role in the action. I challenge you not to smell the brackish water of the Grand Canal surrounding the gondola in which Canaletto has ostensibly placed us, or to taste the smoke and feel the heat of the fire consuming the Palais-Royal Opera, as depicted by Panini’s pupil, Hubert Robert. And any visitor to Rome today can identify with Panini’s throngs of spectators who line the perimeter of the Piazza Navona, eager for sunset to cool the summer evening and hopeful for a splash of water. The piazza may no longer be flooded—a tradition which occurred every Sunday in August until the mid-19th century—but getting as close as possible to the waters of Bernini’s fountain, and documenting it for social media to see, is still a must for any sightseer.
Kerber writes that urban “splendor…serves as a stage set for the quasi-theatrical performance,” and you cannot help but marvel at the expansive views containing hundreds of actors that, if mounted today, would be worthy of an Oscar for cinematography. Still, many of these views are as much about advertising a dignitary’s political agenda and creating lasting propaganda as they are about bringing civic arts and culture to life. For all the power of these images, a second sort of potency is demanded of the meticulous renderings of events honoring specific individuals, usually foreign officials. Even in the most engaging of entertainments, a noble presence was always the main event. Diplomats visiting Venice received appropriately special treatment, so it is no wonder they wished to immortalize the moments. The entries of nobility into the city were marked by at least one of three events: a bull chase, a regatta held on the Grand Canal (which still takes place annually, though to crowds of tourists instead), or a female choir from the Foundling Hospital, where orphaned girls were trained as singers. But Francesco Guardi’s 1782 scene of the concert for the Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia shows the audience entranced not by the young chanteuses—in fact, they are for the most part oblivious to the chorus—but by the Russian royals.
This publicity of the intricate rites and exaggerated excess surrounding aristocratic, ambassadorial, and senatorial visits and their subsequent description and representation is still very relevant today. Writing to Louis XIV, the French Ambassador to Venice, the Abbé de Pomponne, claimed that “the entire city is in agreement that there has never been such a grand ceremony on the occasion of the entry of an ambassador.” Although his declaration was meant to curry favor, there is some truth to it, as with his forgoing of the traditional surcoat (mantelleta) that indicated allegiance to the Republic in favor of a more “independent” garment. Luca Carlevarijs’ inclusion of this sartorial transgression makes his Pomponne unavoidable to the trained eye. In addition to this insertion of spectator-as-spectacle, painters like Carlevarijs also utilized one’s ceremonial attributes—for instance, Pomponne’s parade gondolas—as a signifier of the figure himself.
The intended significance of such scenes is in some cases nearly imperceptible to any but those who actually attended the event, but that may have been the point. Other painters catered to the larger art market and to visitors of lesser rank or no rank who might have only one chance in their lives to remember watching the entry of a new doge. In Michele Marieschi’s view of the procession in the Piazza San Marco of the newly elected Doge Pietro Grimani, we are presented with the backs of the notably non-Venetian spectators on scaffolds, but Grimani, identifiable by his golden robe and the stream of coins he throws into the crowd, is ant-like compared to those in the foreground, who were also the probable buyers of a work like this.
Such creative compositions became a requirement, witnessing glory not through the conventions of perspectival centrality but by depicting the scale of the celebrations and the number of spectators. One can imagine the purchaser showing off the canvas years later to a guest saying, “You had to be there.” The onlookers eventually point us in the direction of the real action: the people in whose honor all this grandeur is taking place. It is this multilayered and ultimately self-referential portrayal that was and remains the genius of view painters.
The sheer number of compositional variants in what could have otherwise been a rather repetitive, even stagnant, body of work among painters demonstrates the eagerness of these artists to experiment with new visual languages, as well. Carlevarijs painted the gilt gondolas of Pomponne at the bank on the left, partially in the shadows, both revealing and concealing the opulence of the vessels and their commissioners but drawing your eye across the canvas to the men themselves, while Canaletto chose to put them at a perspectival advantage front and center, with light dancing upon their glittering surfaces in the sun-drenched canal.
For Guardi, the whole of Piazza San Marco becomes the main actor on the evening of Good Friday, when each facade is candlelit in the Venetian tradition, leading the eyes of every bystander directly to the upper facade of the basilica, where torches flank the balcony containing the miniscule Four Horses. The few canvases in the exhibition not illustrating events in Italy—though still very much Italianate in their depiction—further develop this idea of cityscape-as-actor. Bernardo Bellotto depicts the townspeople gawking during the painstaking demolition of the Kreuzkirche in Dresden, and Hubert’s shell of the Palais-Royal Opera serves as Paris’ own Vesuvius. (In a pendant piece, a crowd marvels at the smoke still hanging above the palace the following day).
These painterly yet journalistic “snapshots” have outlived many of the monuments they reproduce, especially those that were not meant to stand the test of time. It’s worth remembering that what survives of this ephemeral architecture only in small-scale two dimensions today actually existed in enormous and imposing three dimensions for weeks or months at a time, from the first stages of construction until long after the associated processions. Moreover, they actually record the reuse of some architectural elements in future events, suggesting a burgeoning secondhand market in what must have been spectacles of bankrupting exorbitance.
Kerber’s insightful study looks at this particular and defining period in view painting, as foreign audiences and the painters they commissioned were among the first to understand the importance of capturing decisive moments in one’s career for posterity, and thus to capitalize on this peculiar and above all modern form of self-presentation. Such fleeting though important events were such an integral part of city life that the sense of spectacle itself became a mainstay of urban living for inhabitants and visitors alike. That peculiar culture, filled with very visible entertainments, no doubt encouraged even more travelers and transplants to these cities. Not only did these paintings record for posterity certain events for a privileged set and may have encouraged travel among those within that set, but they also record the urban fabric at that time, which was quite literally built on the anticipation of those very events.
And so we come full circle. In one sense, these patrons were the “influencers” of their own century. Just as today’s jet-setters go to great lengths to find the ideal camera angle with which to capture themselves splashing on the Cote d’Azur or doing yoga at a retreat in Bali, foreign ambassadors and senators and the painters they commissioned pointedly referenced specific minutes, even seconds, in their religious and political careers. Some elites wanted a visual record of their first significant public event, while others sought the proof knowing that it would be their last. While they didn’t have today’s luxury of capturing the moment instantaneously, they have left us with a legacy of true luxury. One could argue that the current generation of celebrities take their online photo streams very seriously, spending hours editing and reediting to perfection, but when you’re faced with Canaletto’s or Marieschi’s perspectival masterpieces, there really is no comparison.
By Martina D’Amato