Dominique-Vivant Denon Collection (his stamp partly erased in the lower right corner). Denon sale on May 1er 1826 – part of lot 329 or lot 331
Marquet de Vasselot Collection - Sale of May 28-29 1891 - lot number 157
London private collection
Laurin-Guilloux-Buffetaud sale of April 4, 1974 - lot number 25
Ader-Picard-Tajan sale June 7, 1989
Gilbert Butler Gallery - New York (from a label on the back)
This drawing, which bears the signature "Fr Guardi", is included in the catalog raisonné of Guardi's drawings (Guardi - I designi) published by Antonio Morassi under number 435 (reproduction number 433).
In this drawing, probably executed at the end of his life, Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) depicts a partly imaginary view of the villas located along the Brenta Canal. Those villas, set along the canal that connects Venice and Padua, were one of the traditional holiday destinations of Venetian aristocratic families. The long succession of sales in which this drawing appears allows us to trace it back to its first known owner, Dominique-Vivant Denon, who certainly bought it in Italy, either during his long stay in Venice (1786-1793), possibly from Guardi himself, or during the Napoleonic period.
7 11/16 “x 12 3/16 “(195 x 310 mm); framed : 16 ¾ “x 19 ½ “ - 42.5 x 49.5 cm
1. Francesco Guardi, a protean artist
Francesco Guardi was born into a family of artists: his father Domenico (1678 - 1716) was also a painter, as were his two brothers Gianantonio, known as Antonio (1699 - 1760) and Nicolò. His sister Cecilia married the painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Art historians estimate that Francesco Guardi painted his first vedute around 1755-1756; the painting of vedute heralded therefore the second stage in his life as a painter, as he was in his mid-forties. His first views of Venice were painted under the influence of Canaletto, whose studio he may have attended. In 1760, as he took over the family workshop on the death of his brother, who until then had run it focusing largely on the production of religious and historical scenes, allowed him to discover and flourish in this pictorial genre. His second son Giacomo (1764 - 1835) joined him and was the last painter of the family. Until his death Francesco remained a fertile painter who painted with extreme ease and speed, and this explains the large number of canvases (over a thousand) that constitute his corpus.
The themes explored by Guardi in this second part of his life are multiple but can be classified in three broad categories, which are quite permeable: beside the views of Venice, which constitute the most well-known part of his drawn and painted work, Guardi was a great illustrator of the Venetian festivals and breathed new life into to the Caprice, a pictorial genre that mixes imaginary representations of architectural landscapes, often inspired by the sites of the lagoon and scenes de genre.
In its Vedute, Guardi succeeds in the tour de force of radically renewing a genre in which Canaletto had excelled. Moving away from the descriptive reality of his predecessor, he created a new, magical vision. Reversing the general tendencies of European art marked by the advent of the neo-clacissism, during the last thirty years of his life, Guardi developed a more and more personal style, gradually freeing itself from the framework of strict figuration by privileging evocations rather than representations.
In his Vedute, Guardi sometimes abandons the narrow frame of the lagoon for firm ground, as in 1778 at the time of his voyage to Trentino, or when carrying out a series of paintings representing Venetian villas which were accompanied by some drawings, following the request of John Strange, the British "Resident" in Venice.
2. Description of the artwork
This drawing, recognized by Antonio Morassi as an autograph work by Francesco Guardi, is a unicum in the artist's corpus. Although it may be similar to other drawings of Venetian villas commissioned by John Strange, it is likely to be a later work, mixing real and imaginary elements.
At a bend of the Brenta, on the right we can see an imposing Palladian villa and on the other bank two villas separated by a sort of nymphaeum. They are isolated from the road that runs along the canal by high walls in which three monumental portals open, one of which is decorated with statues.
In the middle of the canal the Burchiello advances. It was a river boat with a large wooden cabin, finely painted and decorated and lit by windows on each side. This boat was used by the wealthiest Venetians to travel from Venice to their country villas.
Boats like this were rowed from St. Mark's to Fusina, from where they were then pulled by horses to Padua. The absence of horses tells us that the boat is probably on its way down the canal to Venice. In an amusing detail at the far left of the drawing, Guardi has elliptically depicted a horse-drawn carriage, pulled by a single horse that seems to be at full gallop, as if trying to catch up with the Burchiello.
The villa on the right has a majestic peristyle from which a flight of steps emerges. The composition seems largely fanciful since these steps stop on a balustrade located at mid-height and do not appear to give access to the garden below. The garden is embellished with kiosks, as if for a waterside party, with a circular fountain and an elegant pontoon allowing access from the canal.
The façade of the Villa does not seem to correspond to an existing villa but rather to an evocation of two famous villas along the Brenta: Villa Foscari in Mira (also known as the Malcontenta) and Villa Pisani (also called the Villa Nazionale) in Strà. While the peristyle evokes the Malcontenta, the statues on the pediment and the windows on the two levels are closer to Villa Pisani.
3. The Denon provenance
The stamp of the Denon collection in the lower righthand corner gives us an opportunity to evoke the rich life of Dominique-Vivant Denon.
Born in Givry near Châlons-sur-Saône in 1747, this Burgundian arrived in Paris in 1764 and was appointed Gentilhomme Ordinaire of the King in 1768 before embracing a diplomatic career: St. Petersburg (1773 - 1774), Switzerland (1775) and then Naples (until 1785), where he met the painter David. In 1786 he went to Venice where he had an affair with Isabella Marin, born Teotochi, the future Countess Albrizzi (1760 - 1836) whose literary salon attracted the intellectual elite of the Serenissima. In Venice, Denon devoted himself to engraving and to enriching his collection, notably by acquiring the Zanetti collection, rich in prints of the highest quality but also in drawings by Parmesan and Guerchino. Suspected of being a spy of the Convention, Denon was expelled from Venice on July 12, 1793, a few months after the death of Francesco Guardi (January 1st, 1793).
After returning to Paris, at the age of fifty-two his participation in the Egyptian expedition (1798-1799) allowed him to start a new career and, in 1802, to publish his Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les campagnes du Général Bonaparte, illustrated by more than 300 engravings made after his own drawings.
Appointed in 1802 by Bonaparte as Director of the Central Museum of Arts, (the future Napoleon Museum), Denon was also responsible for the Museum of French Monuments, the Special Museum of the French School in Versailles, the galleries of the government palaces, the National Mint, the Sèvres, Beauvais, La Savonnerie and Gobelins porcelain factories, the workshops of chalcography, engraving on fine stones and mosaics, and commissions to artists. He then travelled throughout Europe in the Emperor's wake, collecting hundreds of works of art for the Napoleon Museum, and sometimes some for his own collection. He handed in his resignation to Louis XVIII in 1815 and died in 1825.
On May 1st, 1826, his collections were sold. An excellent catalogue in three volumes was written up. The drawings constitute 667 lots and are classified by school. The ten drawings of Guardi that Denon owned are divided into three lots (on page 117 of the catalog):
329 - Four very beautiful pen and ink drawings, representing various views of the city of Venice
330 - A pen and ink drawing representing the Buccentaur, mounted by the Doge of Venice to perform the ceremony of marrying the sea
331 - Four landscapes executed in pen and wash.
Our drawing was therefore part of either lot 329 or lot 331. The drawing corresponding to lot 330 is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille, which acquired it in 1885 (Morassi 284/ reproduction 282), but we have not found any trace of the seven other drawings that, together with the Villas on the Brenta, made up these two lots.
This Denon provenance is confirmed by the sale catalogue for the Marquet de Vasselot collection, on May 28-29, 1891, in which our drawing reappears under lot 157 with a much more explicit description: "GUARDI (François) - Canal with Country House - Pen and wash - DENON Sale". The cardboard of the old frame of this drawing has been preserved on the back of the new frame (which is slightly larger) and still retains the label with its sale number.
From a chronological point of view, it seems possible that Denon may have bought this drawing directly from Francesco Guardi, although there is no evidence to confirm this hypothesis. We also know that, after his death, Guardi left a large number of drawings to his son Giacomo, who traded them, before selling all those still in his possession to Teodoro Correr in 1829. It is therefore also quite possible that this drawing was acquired by Dominique Vivant-Denon, during one of his stays in Italy during the Napoleonic period.
This drawing has been recently framed in an 18th century “Canaletto” Venetian frame.
Main bibliographic references:
Antonio Morassi -Guardi I designi - Alfieri Electa 1984
(collective) - Francisco Guardi Vedute, Capricci, Feste - Milano 1993
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