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An overlooked master celebrated in ‘Canaletto and the Art of Venice’

“The Bacino di S. Marco on Ascension Day” is among the works in the documentary “Canaletto and the Art of Venice.”
MFA/The Royal Collection
“The Bacino di S. Marco on Ascension Day” is among the works in the documentary “Canaletto and the Art of Venice.”

Before there were postcards of Venice, there was Canaletto.

Scorned by such legendary connoisseurs of Italian art as John Ruskin and Henry James for what they saw as rote reproductions of cityscapes and landmarks, Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto (1697-1768), had his champions, too. Canaletto’s admirers included fellow painters J.W.W. Turner and James Whistler, who famously also favored Venice as a subject; they were fans of his technical mastery and the subtle, fanciful touches that evoke the city’s earthiness and eeriness.

It’s this supportive position that is upheld in David Bickerstaff’s documentary “Canaletto and the Art of Venice,” another in the Exhibition on Screen series showing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Centered around the 2017 Canaletto retrospective at the Queen’s Gallery Buckingham Palace, it presents dozens of his paintings to luminous effect, as well as numerous engravings and sketches.

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It draws on the lucid explanations of scholars and employs artful montages to illuminate Canaletto’s technique, his influences, and the minute detailing that elevate his work from upscale mementos to masterpieces of the “vedusti,” or view genre. Cutting from images of present-day Venice to sketches of the same scenes in Canaletto’s notebook to his preparatory drawings and the finished pieces, the film provides insight into the artist’s process.

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It also delves into the spirit of his work. Canaletto was both criticized and praised as an artist whose work was intended for pure visual pleasure, and the film indulges in that same beauty with its lushly photographed and framed shots of the city. It evokes the elegant hedonism of 18th- century Venice by showing present-day celebrations of the carnival and other festivities and by visiting a gilded opera house where a soprano sings Vivaldi’s exquisite “Tu m’offendi.”

But, as the film points out, Canaletto offers more than surface beauty. Especially in his “capricci” — images taken from life with imaginary additions — one can see tiny figures that, when examined close-up, have all the rude humanity of those in a Bruegel. When uninhabited, his precise renderings of monumental architecture evoke the haunted cityscapes of the 20th century surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. And as one interviewee points out, a close look at the canines in his canvases shows that Canaletto really loved and understood dogs.

But not much else is known about him personally. He was short, hence the diminutive moniker Canaletto. He was good to his sisters, taking care of them financially. According to contemporaries, he was difficult to work with, shifty and vain. But, as one scholar suggests, this may have been an image developed by dealers to discourage customers from buying from the artist directly.

Was he exploited by these middlemen? Despite having hundreds of his works bought by wealthy, mostly English tourists as classy souvenirs of their visits to Venice, Canaletto did not die a rich man. He left behind only some unfinished works and a few articles of clothing. In contrast, his chief agent, John Smith, the British Consul to Venice, sold his collection of Canalettos along with some other items to King George III for £20,000.

“Canaletto and the Art of Venice” screens Wednesday through Jan. 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts. For more go to www.mfa.org/programs/series/canaletto-and-the-art-of-venice.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.