Canaletto’s Unpublished Masterpieces: Christie’s Classic Week

In a momentous event for art enthusiasts, Christie’s Old Masters Part I sale during Classic Week 2023 in London will feature a captivating pair of previously unpublished Venetian masterpieces by the illustrious vedute painter, Giovanni Antonio Canal, renowned as Canaletto.

These two exceptional works, titled “Venice: The Mouth of the Grand Canal from the East” and “The Molo, with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace, from the Bacino,” are not only in impeccable condition but also expected to fetch an estimated price range of £8,000,000 to £12,000,000.

Capturing the Essence of Venice in Timeless Art

These masterpieces, crafted around the year 1734, represent Canaletto at the pinnacle of his artistic prowess. They depict two of his most evocative subjects, providing a glimpse into the mesmerizing beauty of Venice during the 18th century.

It’s highly likely that these canvases were commissioned by an English patron, with Joseph Smith, a prominent merchant, collector, and later consul in Venice, acting as the intermediary. The quality of these paintings stands on par with Canaletto’s renowned series of Grand Canal views housed in the Royal Collection and the celebrated collection at Woburn Abbey.

Canaletto's Unpublished Masterpieces: Christie's Classic Week

These remarkable paintings have a history dating back to the 18th century. Records reveal payments made by John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford, between 1734 and 1736 to John Smith, the brother of Joseph Smith and his London agent. These payments were associated with the celebrated Canaletto series at Woburn. It’s been suggested that the two paintings in question here were part of a set of four canvases commissioned in 1733 by Elizabeth, Countess of Essex, the sister of the Duke of Bedford. Her husband, William Capel, the 3rd Earl of Essex, was appointed as an ambassador in Turin in 1732.

Lady Essex’s Artistic Influence

The choice of subjects in these paintings hints that Lady Essex may have already encountered the two related works ordered by her brother while they were still in Venice. The impact of the series now displayed at Woburn once exhibited at Bedford House in London, led to further commissions within the family.

Charles Spencer, the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, who was the Duke’s brother-in-law, commissioned a celebrated series of views, formerly showcased at Langley Park. Lady Essex, much like her brother, may have continued to commission additional works from the talented artist even after receiving her initial four pieces.

By 1939, these remarkable paintings were in the possession of Douglas Glass (1881-1944), the only son of James George Henry Glass (1843-1911), a distinguished engineer and a director of the Bengal Nagpur Railway Company. James Glass’s deep interest in Italy is evident in the fact that he spent his final days in Naples rather than his English residence.

Canaletto’s Artistry and His Audience

Canaletto was well aware that his depictions of Venice served as a window to the city for those who hadn’t experienced it firsthand, as well as a cherished memory for those who had undertaken the Grand Tour. He understood that many patrons sought paintings that could be displayed in pairs or as part of a larger series.

Canaletto's Unpublished Masterpieces: Christie's Classic Week

By offering complementary or intersecting viewpoints, as seen in this pair of paintings, he provided a three-dimensional experience of Venice’s architectural landmarks. In this case, viewers are transported to the west to witness the grandeur of the buildings along the Grand Canal before turning to the right to behold the Molo and the city’s central monuments. Both paintings are bathed in the gentle morning light, enhancing their overall charm.

Canaletto’s Unique Compositions

These paintings suggest viewpoints from the Bacino di San Marco, just east of the Grand Canal’s mouth. Canaletto was a master at never repeating his compositions; instead, he skillfully varied them by adjusting the angles of vision and the placement of vessels, creating a sense of depth and perspective for the viewer.

One notable aspect of Canaletto’s approach was his willingness to alter the relative scale of buildings for compositional impact, exemplified by the Basilica’s portrayal. He meticulously considered the play of light on water, ensuring that the reflections of buildings and boats matched the implied lighting conditions in his skies.

While the view of the Mouth of the Grand Canal was undeniably popular, views of the Molo held an even greater appeal for topographical reasons. This was the location where ambassadors arrived in the Serenissima. Canaletto produced views of the Molo from both the east and the west, with this pair being exceptional examples of the latter. The artist initially developed this composition in a drawing around 1729 at Windsor, featuring the Bucintoro.

This composition was followed by three large paintings, including the celebrated masterpiece in the Crespi Collection, Milan, as well as those in the Bowes Museum and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. Canaletto’s fourth treatment, which is substantially smaller and was painted for Smith, now resides in the Royal Collection. Each work exhibits subtle architectural adjustments and variations in the portrayal of ships and figures, showcasing Canaletto’s artistic versatility. The dimensions of these exceptional canvases are closest to those found at Woburn.

Francis Russell, Christie’s UK Deputy Chairman, expresses, “Both pictures are of classic views which were inevitably in considerable demand with Canaletto’s patrons. He had a genius for recalibrating his compositions, subtly varying his angles of vision and invariably completely revising both his boats and his figures. Previously unknown to scholars, these masterpieces exemplify Canaletto’s work at the height of his career.”

In conclusion, the upcoming sale of these rediscovered masterpieces by Canaletto presents a rare opportunity for art connoisseurs and collectors to own a piece of Venice’s enchanting history. These paintings, previously unknown to scholars, exemplify Canaletto’s mastery during the peak of his career. As they journey from New York to Paris and finally return to London for the sale, everyone is invited to explore and appreciate these exceptional works of art.

Images: Christie’s

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