Offered by Stéphane Renard Fine Art
Old master paintings and drawings
Although we have little bibliographical information on William James, we know that he was trained by Canaletto during the painter's stay in England between 1746 and 1755. Although he may never have been to Venice, William James remained under the influence of his master for a long time and became known for his paintings inspired by Canaletto's artworks.
In this painting, William James is inspired by one of the twelve views of the Grand Canal painted by Canaletto for Joseph Smith, or more precisely by the engraving made by Antonio Visentini in 1735 after this painting. He delivers a very personal version, vibrant with colours, in which he brilliantly reproduces the moving surface of the sea, animated by the ever-changing traffic of the gondolas.
1. William James, the English follower of Canaletto
The life of William James, who worked as a vedutist between 1754 and 1771, remains largely an enigma. While we have no precise biographical data, Edward Edwards reports in his Anecdotes of Painters (published in 1808) that James was a pupil or an assistant of Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto (1697 - 1778) during his stay in England between 1746 and 1755. This collaboration had a decisive influence on the work of William James, who later largely imitated Canaletto's Venetian views, which were so fashionable at the time, but also the London paintings of Samuel Scott. James lived for some years in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, and then at the Golden Head in May's Buildings, St Martin's Lane, an area of London popular with artists and craftsmen.
James exhibited at the Society of Artists of Great Britain from 1761 to 1768 and at the Royal Academy from 1769 to 1771. He became a member of the Society of Artists in 1766. Most of the paintings he exhibited were views of London, but he also produced a series of Egyptian temples which he exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1768 and at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1771 (where he also exhibited a View of the Grand Canal in Venice in 1771).
It is thought that James never left England, so these Egyptian images must have been based on the sketches of an unknown traveller. As for his views of Venice, which are the most sought-after part of his work, he was mainly inspired, as we shall see in more detail, by Antonio Visentini's Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum, a collection of engravings based on Canaletto's paintings.
2. From Canaletto's painting to Visentini's engraving
In 1727 Canaletto painted a View of the Grand Canal to the West, from the Vendramin-Calergi Palace in San Geremia (11th picture of the Gallery). This view was acquired with the entire Joseph Smith’s collection by King George III in 1762 and is now part of the Royal Collection. This view is part of a set of twelve paintings commissioned from Canaletto by Joseph Smith, an Englishman based in Venice who had become Canaletto's dealer.
This set was probably made between 1722 and 1732; two festival scenes painted between 1733 and 1734 were added to this set. These fourteen scenes were then engraved by Antonio Visentini and published under the title Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum by Pasquali in 1735. It should be noted that they were engraved in reverse and that the engravings therefore appear in the same direction as the original paintings.
On the right, Canaletto depicts the imposing Renaissance façade of Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi, commissioned in 1481 from Mauro Codussi. Canaletto mistakenly added a balustrade to the second floor and depicted two arched windows on either side of the doorway opening onto the canal - there should only be one on each side, flanked by a rectangular window (Canaletto had drawn the palace correctly in his sketchbook). In the distance is the tower of San Geremia, correctly proportioned but perhaps slightly off to the right.
Canaletto has shown three openings instead of two on each side of the bell tower. The windows of the adjacent church are also very inaccurately depicted.
To the left, in the shadows, are the Ca' Tron and the Palazzo Belloni-Battagia. Beyond we see the brick facade of the fifteenth-century granaries, the Deposito del Megio, followed by the Fondaco dei Turchi, built in the thirteenth century as an office and used as warehouse for Turkish merchants between 1621 and 1838. The Deposito is normally set back from Palazzo Belloni-Battagia, as the canal curves to the left at this point. Canaletto has flattened and straightened the left bank of the canal to show the Deposito and the Fondaco, which would normally be half hidden, and the two sunlit buildings at the back, which would not be visible at all.
We have reproduced (last picture of the gallery) the engraving by Visentini in which he corrected the inaccuracies introduced by Canaletto, particularly in the façade of Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi.
3. The originality of William James' painting
It is quite possible that William James saw Canaletto's painting in London after it was bought by George III, but it seems certain that his first source of inspiration was Visentini's engraving. The treatment of the façade of the Vendramin-Calergi palace (to the right of the canal) is based upon Visentini's engraving, and therefore does not include the changes introduced by Canaletto. The Tower of San Geremia is also shown with its two openings on each side.
While William James remains faithful to Visentini, and thus to Canaletto's original model, in the general arrangement of the various buildings, the chromatic range takes us away from the Venetian model, towards an explosion of enchanting colors. The orange-red colors of the palaces (inspired by those of English facades) stand out clearly in the cooler light, evoking the atmosphere of the banks of the Thames, which James also depicted on many occasions.
This freedom in the choice of colors confirms the hypothesis that James was mainly inspired by Visentini's engraving, which he had the delicate task of transcribing into color.
While the architectural setting is faithfully reproduced, the painting is enlivened by numerous innovations in the positioning of the characters and by the gondola traffic that animates the canal. Whereas Canaletto had two large red hangings on either side of the canal, James, perhaps inspired by festival scenes, introduces numerous colorful hangings that enliven the windows of the palaces, both on the right and left sides of the canal.
The position of the gondolas is also quite different: James is pushing them higher up in the composition, clearing the moving space of the canal. We can almost perceive the light sea breeze blowing across the quivering waters, in which the sky and the façades of the palaces are reflected, as well as the numerous gondolas whose passengers are finely depicted.
This vivid painting is presented in a gilded wooden frame in the Venetian style.
Main bibliographic reference :
Rozie Razzal & Lucie Whitaker - Canaletto & the Art of Venice - Royal Collection Trust London 2017
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