Friday, June 05, 2009

Canaletto in London

Recently some friends sent me a card with this picture on it, and it now sits on my desk, a happy distraction from work.

Canaletto's The Thames and The City shows London in the middle 18th Century when St Paul's had been completed and looms high over a city that had fully recovered from the infamous fire.

I've spent far too long admiring how much detail can be seen. A panorama of church spires, red tiled roofs above a maze of street, with the odd tree signalling a square. It makes you want to stride out and explore the London of King George II where Samuel Johnson was about to start work on his "Dictionary".

But... but.... there's something wrong.

Firstly lets look at the river - check out the water close up. Basically Canaletto painted a sort of light blue and then did those wiggly lines that even I do in the odd doodle. The river actually doesn't look like that as there are patterns in the ripples and lines from hidden vortices of wind.

Canaletto's lines are like those theatre props in which a series of wiggly card outlines moved up and down to give a feeling of waves. But in reality waves are not two dimensional but three - just looks at the lovely rollers here courtesy of Turner:

I get the feeling that there's something else wrong with the Canaletto but I can't put my finger on it exactly what it is apart from some of the boats just don't look right.

They might well be sufficiently detailed that you can believe the artist was painting exactly what he saw but the perspective feels "odd". Maybe its hard to get the scale right when all the boats are different types, sizes and orientations.

Lovely picture though: just a shame it's in Prague


Carol Anne said...

Canaletto seems to do all right with things that are sitting still, not so well with things that are moving. I doubt, for example, that all of the oarsmen in all of the barges are all at exactly the same point in their stroke at exactly the same time. And unless the Thames in the 18th century had squirrely winds worthy of a desert lake, the various flags and the sail trim of the sailing vessels should indicate a more consistent wind direction.

That should not necessarily be held against Canaletto -- until advances in photography in the late 19th century allowed motion to be stopped, artists really couldn't represent moving targets accurately. Galloping horses, for example, were always depicted with a sort of leaping motion.

Tillerman said...

Interesting. Was there really so much traffic on the Thames in the 19th century? It's worse than Oxford Circus in the 21st!

I'm with Carol Anne. The boats are unrealistic for all sorts of reasons. Not least that the two large sailboats seem to be in totally different winds. Possible I suppose, but I suspect that Canaletto composed this painting from numerous quick sketches of boats he made at different times, and he wasn't really a boat chappie.

Tillerman said...

I mean 18th not 19th.

Carol Anne said...

I don't know that Canaletto's painting would be depicting an ordinary day on the water. I was thinking maybe that there was a jubilee or other special event going on. Witness the smoke of the cannon shot coming from the largest sailing vessel, and all of those fancy barges, which would presumably have been carrying VIPs.

But then, maybe there wasn't a special event, and Canaletto just painted in a bunch of boats that he had sketched on earlier occasions.

Still, I have seen other depictions of the Thames from that era, and yes, it was pretty darn crowded.

O Docker said...

My own theory, JP, is that Canaletto was an early beta tester for Oilshop 1.0, and as Tillerman suggested, he was pasting together a lot of separate images - he wouldn't have been able to capture all of that detail at one time.

And I'm with Carol Anne on the barges - the ones with the working stiffs manning the oars and the leisure classes heavy into the mead on the upper decks. Looks like a formal procession.

Could these have been the royal barges that Handel's Water Music was created to entertain? That would explain the 'spectator' fleet.

This looks like the 18th century equivalent of fleet week, opening day, and the Earls Court boat show combined.

JP said...

There was another secondary title on my card about it being a special event and I think its a race between two of those golden barges. There's a sailing vessel firing its canon which might be the off.

I agree with Carol Anne that Canaletto is better at stationary objects. Buildings that don't move and following the rules of perspective are a lot simpler than always on the move boats.

Another interest snippet from one web site was that he was disappointed in his trip to England as his pictures didn't sell as well as he'd like. This was partly because most of the rich Brits already had one if they wanted one.

The other suggestion is (oh dear, sorry Mr C) that he wasn't doing his best work!

I blame the mead at the O'Docker tavern ;)

Carol Anne said...

O docker, bingo on the Water Music thing. This is exactly what Handel's compositions were intended for.

Carol Anne said...

Of course, if you're looking at the differences between Canaletto and Turner, you're looking at the difference between two major periods of art, the Classical and the Romantic. In both music and painting, the Classical period was characterized by restraint and order (Canaletto, Bach, Handel), while the Romantic was exemplified by more freedom and emotional engagement (Turner, Delacroix, Beethoven, Mozart). In the Classical period, we're looking at stately boats on the Thames; in the Romantic, it's shipwrecks on violent seas.

Yeah, it's a sign of the times.

Alan O'Brien said...

The full title of this painting is: "The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor's Day". This explains the gala character of the proceedings. I have a large print of this painting (1m 40 x 1m) but I didn't realise until I found this site that what I had was only a detail of the whole. The original is the Narodi Gallery, Czech Republic.