THE world of Western painting has loved the pictures of Canaletto (1697-1768) since the 18th century; to think of Venice is to remember his genius. But the man who fostered his fame, Joseph Smith, remains largely unknown.
It was because of Smith, a merchant and British consul in Venice, that Canaletto was so well known in his own time, his work constantly commissioned and sold abroad, mainly in England. The sale of Smith's art collection to England's King George III in 1762 ensured that many of the fine Canalettos it contained would remain together, and that today the public is able to see them in the Queen's Gallery in London.
Venice, with its delicate loveliness, its luminous skies and watery vistas, has nurtured many splendid artists, but not all of them were intent on painting in their city. In Venice's Golden Age of Painting (the 17th century), Titian held sway with his penetrating portraits, his mastery of color. He exerted an immense influence on the artistic world because of his grasp of color - what it could do, what it implied. His portraits astonish us still with the intense scrutiny of their gaze, dreaming, concentr ated, looking out far beyond their frames into an unseen, incalculable world. Other artists working in Venice at the time, including Giorgioni and Bellini, were also captivated by the human face and form.
After this era, the artistic pendulum took a great swing. Portrait painting apparently could not be bettered, and artists turned to the city itself with its architectural marvels. The great figure of the time was Canaletto.
It is largely because of his work that the Europeans came to know the splendors and the graces of the Piazza di San Marco, the rising dome of Santa Maria della Salute, and a host of other buildings. Through him, we first recognized the black gondolas with their rising prows and sterns, and the painted poles to which they could be tied.
Canaletto took some liberties in his drawings and oils, adjusting views, lowering some buildings, heightening others, but all within the bounds of true sight and perspective, giving us what is essential. His scenes are peopled with hundreds of animated figures all busy and distinctively dressed, enhancing the squares, the bridges, being propelled down the canals, giving vitality to every aspect of life. Through Smith, these pictures came to be so admired in England that eventually Canaletto went there to
work on commission. He painted great views of the Thames at Westminster and of splendid country houses.
Joseph Smith (1674-1770) was educated at Westminster School in London, and sent by his family to Venice, where they had ties with the firm of Thomas Williams, bankers and merchants. Smith never went back to England, instead spending his whole life in Venice, a suitable place for a person with his discerning eye, his financial acumen, and his nascent connoisseurship. Venice had then both an English Resident and a Consul; Smith hoped for the first post, which held a higher rank, but in the end settled for serving as consul from 1744 to 1760 and again briefly in 1766. Thomas Williams also dealt in art and had connections with John Smith (Joseph's brother) in London, where John was called an "Italian merchant."
Joseph Smith came to own a small palace on the Grand Canal north of the Rialto Bridge, as well as a villa in the country at Mogliano. Both these properties he rebuilt over the years; in them, he housed his treasures and entertained such notables as Robert Adam and James Boswell. He also had a publishing house, the Pasquali Press, which produced architectural books. He was twice married and was generally successful, especially in the 1730s and '40s. Halfway through the century, wars on the continent disru pted trade, but he had become deft enough to survive, and he continued his art collecting.
Smith's possessions were formidable: pictures (Venetian and from the Low Countries in the main), sculpture, books, silver, furniture, engravings, drawings. These included Vermeer's "Lady at the Virginals," and paintings by Marco Ricci, Sebastiano Ricci, Guido Reni, Rosalba Carriera, and Francesco Zuccarelli. In addition, he amassed a large and excellent library. This entire collection he sold to King George III in 1762, for British pounds22,000. When this assembly was gone, Smith immediately began anothe r collection, which was sold after his death at Christie's. Canaletto, whose canvases were a central part of both collections, lived poorly and left little; he died almost without possessions.
This view of the Grand Canal, from the Carita to the Bacino di San Marco, shows us a scene less familiar to most people than those of the piazza and piazzetto, but one which is interesting, lovely, and animated. The campanile shown on the right collapsed some 20 years after Canaletto painted it, and in the early 19th century the church and the school were converted to house the Accademia Galleries. The bridge in the immediate foreground, on the right, and the canal running along the bottom of our view, m ake an unexpected frame to the whole, while the people going about their business enable us to enter into the affairs of the day with them.
The spacious elegance of the Grand Canal gives us a full, rounded sense of the whole city, that shining pearl on the Adriatic that has so deeply affected the aesthetic life of the world - a vision that Canaletto instilled in the romantic heart.