“The Lure of Dresden: Bellotto at the Court of Saxony,” Kimbell Museum of Art, through April 28
With its exhibition “The Lure of Dresden,” the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth has offered a rare chance to see a substantial portion of Bernardo Bellotto’s large-scale works in the United States. Born in 1722, Bellotto was an aristocrat of the art world, laboring often under the name of his illustrious instructor and uncle, Canaletto. After tutelage with his uncle, he left Venice in 1747, never to return. His life path was picaresque even by the wandering standards of court painters of the time, bringing his skill at rendering Venetian vedute (large-scale cityscapes) to Central Europe, with stops at the Wittelsbach and Habsburg courts, and lengthy stays in Dresden and Warsaw.
Bellotto and his famous uncle have been confused over the years, and the younger artist’s frequent choice to sign his works as “Canaletto,” after he had achieved fame in his own right, has done little to clear the muddle. But while their styles were similar, Bellotto developed a signature approach that distinguishes his work. Both artists attended to architectural details, but Bellotto was more inclined to use a dark and thick line, making frequent and obvious incisions in the paint. Comparisons with preliminary sketches reveal that Bellotto completed many architectural elements freehand, with bas reliefs, moldings, and gables added without any benefit of outline.
Critics have often attributed Bellotto’s darker palate, compared with Canaletto’s, to the northern cities he used as subjects. But his work was darker even in sunny Italy, with blues and browns, distinctly oilier paint, heavy lines, and stronger shadows. His use of shadow was intense and, often, geographically implausible. “Light effects counted among Bellotto’s particular creative liberties,” observes Gregor J. M. Weber. “Indeed, he did not hesitate in various paintings to show a clear light shining on Dresden and Pirna that could only have come from a sun positioned in the north, a light that was unnatural in Saxony.” This practice results in bands of light alternating with segments of shadow to accentuate the perception of depth created by the skillful manipulation of buildings in these paintings. Weber notes that Bellotto created clouds that would have been unimaginable in life, some “broccoli-shaped.”
The Kimbell exhibit offers an intriguing look into the artistic flourishing of Dresden in the mid-eighteenth century, prefaced with Meissen porcelain, several city scenes by Johan Alexander Thiele, and a few Venetian scenes by Canaletto. Bellotto’s vedute were nearly eight-feet wide and feature startling views of Dresden; the detail is captivating. Kimbell features 17 of his Dresden paintings and several of the nearby Saxon town of Pirna. Bellotto recreated many of these paintings for the king’s prime minister Heinrich, Graf von Brühl.
Bellotto’s first view of Dresden displays both immense talent and diplomatic skill. He depicts himself, not uncommonly, sketching the town, but also presents his predecessor painters Thiele and Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich pointing out areas to paint. His vedute of Dresden offer a range of enchanting views, often from across the Elbe, in order to capture the broadest spectrum of significant Saxon construction, but also of the Zwinger Courtyard and some more unconventional vistas.
The Properties of Brühl along the riverfront (now known as Brühl’s Terrace) tend to be featured in strong sunlight. Tiny details accentuate the scene: customs posts bear the crests of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Saxony. A range of citizens of socioeconomic backgrounds offer quaint vignettes; Bellotto was not quite his uncle’s equal at depicting humanity, but the scenes still provide considerable interest.
Politics intruded in a dramatic way during the Third Silesian War, as Frederick the Great invaded Saxony and Frederick Augustus relocated to Warsaw. Bellotto went to Munich and to Vienna, during which time his home was destroyed by Prussians; 22 of his own vedute and almost 2,000 sheets of drawings were lost. He returned in 1762 and got back to work. Two pieces from the Agnes Etherington Art Center in Canada and the El Paso Museum represent his later Dresden period here.
The tragedy and wonder of Bellotto is that his most significant periods of work documented cities—Dresden and Warsaw—most comprehensively destroyed in World War II. Reproductions of his work are posted in Warsaw to let tourists know what the city used to look like. In a supreme irony, his painterly errors and interpolations were in some cases incorporated into the reconstructed landscape. Life imitated art, for once.
Bernardo Bellotto, Dresden from the Right Bank of the Elbe above the Augustus Bridge (National Gallery of Ireland)