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Auction record for a drawing by Canaletto
Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, The Presentation of the Doge in S. Marco. Pen and brown ink and three shades of grey wash, heightened with touches of white over black chalk within original brown ink framing lines, 381 by 550 mm. Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Today, in Sotheby’s Old Master & British Works on Paper Sale, a rare drawing by Canaletto realised £3.1m/ $3.9m, setting a new auction record for a drawing by the artist. A superbly preserved pen and brown ink drawing which ranks among the greatest that the artist ever made, The Presentation of the Doge in S. Marco belongs to a highly original series of twelve depictions of the ceremonies and festival of Doges, the Feste Ducali, the majority of which now reside in museums around the world. Imposing in scale and composition and brilliantly accomplished in its virtuosic lighting and handling of the media, the drawing is a masterpiece in the art of perspective and though unusual in the artist’s canon of work, is very definitive of his genius.

Earlier in the sale, a newly-discovered 16th century work by Rosso Fiorentino sold for £471,000 / $592,047, also setting a new record for a work on paper by the Italian Mannerist. Long thought lost, The Visitation is an extremely rare example of a chalk drawing by Rosso and the first compositional study by the artist to appear on the market for half a century. Although Rosso must have executed many drawings in his lifetime, almost all of his graphic works have been lost over the centuries and this work adds significantly to the understanding of the working method of an artist known for his eccentricity, and expressive, unconventional pictorial style.

Imposing in scale and composition, totally engaging in terms of narrative, and brilliantly accomplished in its virtuosic lighting and handling of the media, this superbly preserved drawing ranks among the greatest that Canaletto ever made. It belongs to a highly original series of twelve depictions of the ceremonies and festivals of the Doges, the Feste Ducali, conceived in the first instance as drawings, but made specifically to be engraved. Ten of the drawings are known today, four of them in the British Museum, two in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the remainder elsewhere1; this is only the second drawing from this extraordinary series, so unusual within Canaletto’s work, yet so definitive of his genius, to appear at auction since 1974, when two were offered for sale in these Rooms, from the collection of Eva, Countess of Rosebery.2
Though Canaletto’s drawings and paintings are often very accurate renderings of specific locations – frequently, one would assume, at the request of one of the artist’s illustrious noble patrons – images like these of actual historical events are relatively rare in his work. Yet he clearly relished the opportunities offered by the subjects of this series of depictions of ceremonies and pageants, such a fundamental element in the Venetian spirit, and the compositions that he produced for this series are among his most original and inventive. In this work, the first in the series, we see the newly elected Doge being presented to the crowds for the first time in the grandiose interior of Saint Mark’s. Or rather, we see what is clearly a hugely important ceremony going on, and somewhere in the middle of it we know the Doge, and this important moment, is to be found. Yet in fact, it is not the Doge himself and his presentation that is the subject here, it is the famous and elaborate interior of St. Mark’s, and it is Venice, her life and her people. As Peter Kerber so aptly wrote in the catalogue of the recent Getty Museum exhibition on depictions of historical moments in the 18thcentury, ‘The Doge is but a tiny figure…: the true protagonist of this and the other depictions in the series is the Serene Republic, embodied by its rituals and traditions.’3

Drawing, perhaps, on what he had learned early in life from his theatrical scene-designer father, Canaletto has here conceived and constructed his composition so as to maximise in every possible way the impact and drama of his scene. Both in scale and in compositional complexity, this is one of the most ambitious of all the artist’s drawings, and it is highly unusual in being an interior scene. Perhaps understandably, given how central light and water clearly were to Canaletto’s art, he painted only a tiny handful of interior scenes, and almost all of those depict the rich and mysterious interior of St. Mark’s, with its abundant gilded mosaics and flickering light effects (the other interior that Canaletto painted, twice, was that of the Ranaleagh rotunda, in London4). Two paintings, one of them part of the unrivalled collection of Canaletto’s works amassed by Consul Joseph Smith, and subsequently sold to King George III, the other in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, are views taken from much the same location as the present drawing, though slightly further to the right.5 A third painting, also in the Royal Collection, is a view from the south transept towards the north, across the pulpit.6 Canaletto used the latter viewpoint in making at least three drawings, one of them the very moving, highly finished drawing in Hamburg, on which the artist wrote, with feeling, that he had made it at the age of 68, without using his glasses, in the year 17667 – the same moment, late in his career, when he executed the present work. A much sketchier drawing in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, shows a small detail of the view seen here.8 Otherwise, his only significant drawings of interiors seem to be the scene depicting The Doge giving thanks to the Maggior Consiglio in the same series as the present work (London, British Museum9), and the Interior of a Circular building, in a private collection.10

Clearly, and understandably, Canaletto was fascinated by the captivating atmosphere and light effects to be found in the interior of St. Mark’s, and the artist has here maximised the theatrical potential of his subject, using the deep recession and dramatic contrasts of light and shade within the famous church’s elaborate nave to the greatest possible effect, and filling it with an infinite variety of animated figures, so eager to see the proceedings that they have to be held back by ushers with sticks. More figures fill the galleries above the aisle arcades, teetering perilously over the long drop down to the floor below. All these figures are brilliantly rendered with minimalist penstrokes and vibrant highlights, whose motion the artist has hardly managed to arrest. You can almost hear the hubbub of excited conversation. Everything in this wonderfully rich image speaks of an essentially Venetian wit and lightness of being, from the brilliance of the architecture and the lighting to the animation of the endlessly varied figures, who seem about to step onto the stage for a popular theatre production.

The exact origin and chronology of this joy-filled series of drawings is unclear, but they surely originate from a major commission, seemingly the last such instruction that Canaletto received. The compositions exist in the form of drawings by Canaletto, prints by Giovanni Battista Brustolon which credit the designs to Canaletto (fig. 1), and paintings by Guardi, as well as through various other painted and drawn copies. This has given rise, over the years, to much discussion of which set of images came first, and whether there were originally also paintings of these subjects by Canaletto, but the consensus is now that the initial commission was for Canaletto to produce drawings that would then be engraved by Brustolon, and that subsequently, probably around 1775, Guardi was asked to make a series of paintings, now in the collections of the Louvre, based on these prints.11 Eight of the prints were announced for sale (though not yet actually printed) by the publisher, Lodovico Furlanetto, in March 1766, and four months later, in July, he obtained permission to extend the series to twelve plates.12 There is no way of knowing exactly how much earlier than this the drawings were made, but one of them, The Doge attends the Giovedi Grasso Festival in the Piazzetta, now in Washington13, includes the arms of the Doge Alvise Mocenigo IV, who was elected in 1763, so it seems reasonable to assume that the drawings were all made some time between then and 1766, and in the case of those compositions that show events specific to the election of the Doge, rather than annual festivities, that they were based on Canaletto’s first hand observation of the festivities following the election of 1763.

Though the full series of the Feste Ducali prints consists of twelve compositions, drawings by Canaletto are only known for ten of them. These ten sheets were discovered in a bookseller’s in Venice (very probably the premises of the publisher Furlanetto himself), by Sir Richard Colt Hoare sometime between 1787 and 1789, when the dealer Giovanni Maria Sasso described them to Sir Abraham Hume, noting that they were as fine as any paintings.14 Hoare proudly took the ten drawings back to Stourhead, in Wiltshire, where for the next century or so they were hung, as a set, over a fireplace in the library; a delightful watercolour, executed around 1808-1813 by Francis Nicholson (1753-1844), shows the interior of the library, with Richard Colt Hoare seated at a table (fig.2).15 (The library must, though, have been kept very dark, as the drawings remain even today in outstandingly good, fresh condition.) In 1883, much of the contents of Stourhead were dispersed at auction, and the Canalettos were included in that sale, but this drawing and one other16 were bought back by a family member, thereby remaining in the hands of the Hoare family until sold to the present owner a few years ago. The drawing has therefore only changed hands three times since its creation and has not been seen on the auction market since 1883.

Although the series of drawings to which this work belongs was executed very late in Canaletto’s career (no dated work is known from after 176617, and he died only two years later), they are none the less all full of the vibrant, optimistic energy of the artist’s drawings from much earlier periods, yet given an added resonance by the historical subject-matter that ostensibly provides the focus for each scene. As already mentioned, although Canaletto did occasionally depict real historical events, as in the splendid painting of around 1735, The Doge Visiting the Church and Scuola di San Rocco, in the National Gallery, London18, the vast majority of his paintings and drawings, even the most specifically topographical, are not linked to any particular moment. Indeed, the narrative content in this series of the festivals of the Doges is unparalleled in any other project undertaken by the artist, but the application of his extraordinary pictorial skills to this somewhat unfamiliar type of composition simply serves to add yet more layers of potential excitement and satisfaction for the viewer. All the visual riches of more typical masterpieces such as the Capriccio: Terrace and Loggia of a Palace on the Lagoon, in the Royal Collection (a star of the recent Canaletto exhibition at the Queen's Gallery, London19) are also abundantly present in the drawing now under discussion, but here they are interacting in a wonderful way with another, entirely different, realm of content and expression.

It is hard to imagine a more total expression of the essence of Canaletto’s genius as a draughtsman than this extraordinary drawing, which – both literally and figuratively – transports us to the very heart of 18th-century Venice, in all its glory, wit and mystery. That it was loved and cherished for so long by one of the greatest families of English cognoscenti is the final piece in the jigsaw of elements that together make this by one of the two most important drawings by Canaletto to have come to the market in recent decades, and one of the most illuminating and enlightening, as well as one of the most visually exciting and satisfying, that he ever made.

1. Constable/Links, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 525-32, nos. 630-639
2. Constable/Links nos. 636 & 637, sold, London, Sotheby's, 11 December 1974, lots 10 & 11, and no. 632, sold, London, Sotheby’s, 5 July 2017, lot 44
3. Eyewitness Views. Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe, exh. cat., Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum/Minneapolis Institute of Art/Cleveland Museum of Art, 2017-18, p. 15
4. One of these paintings, dating from 1754, is in the National Gallery, London, the other in a private collection; see Constable/Links, op. cit., nos. 420 and 421
5. Constable/Links, op. cit., nos. 79 and 78 respectively
6. Ibid., no. 77
7. Ibid., no. 558
8. Ibid., no. 561
9. London, British Museum, inv. 1910,0212.20, Constable/Links, op. cit., no. 63,
10. Not in Constable/Links, but included by Alessandro Bettagno, in the 1982 exhibition, Canaletto. Disegni-Dipinti-Incisioni, at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice (no. 73)
11. The twelve paintings by Guardi are all in the collections of the Louvre, but three of them are on deposit in museums elsewhere (in Brussels, Grenoble and Nantes).
12. Constable/Links, op. cit., pp. 525-6, citing earlier sources
13. Ibid, no. 636
14. Ibid, p. 527
15. In the collection of the National Trust, inv. 730813
16. Ibid, no. 632
17. The latest known dated drawing is the view of the interior of St. Mark's, Venice, now in the Hamburg Kunsthalle; Constable/Links no. 558
18. Inv. no. NG937
19. Constable/Links no. 821; Rosie Razzall and Lucy Whitaker, Canaletto & the Art of Venice, exh. cat., London, The Queen's Gallery, 2017, no. 138

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