Many of us seek and cherish essences when traveling to foreign places: a food, a shop, a fall of light, an open-air market, the peculiar curve or steep of street or hillside, the play of public voices. One of my Venice essences is the look of boatyards under a cool October sun. Gondolas require heavy maintenance. They have to be scraped and repainted frequently. When overturned on work benches, the sun smacking the patent-leather black hulls, they gleam like precious objects. There are fewer boats now in Venice than once upon a time. During its days of empire, roughly from the late 1300s to the late 1500s, when as a mercantile power Venice virtually ruled the Mediterranean and beyond, about 10,000 gondolas oared around the Grand Lagoon.
As its power waned, the city began to turn itself into something we’d recognize. By the 18th Century, mighty Venice had become what Goethe called “the drawing room of Europe.” By then, as Garry Wills puts it in his very good book, Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire, “it had begun its later career as a museum, selling itself to tourists rather than imposing itself on subjects.” The world began instead to impose itself on it. Painters like Canaletto and Francesco Guardi began to saturate the art-tourist market with vedute, views of the city featuring the different sorts of watercraft that made Venice work, gondolas most of all. Wills also says that the proliferating vedute trade “reflected the way it had become a place to be seen.”
Canaletto’s pictures, many done on commission, were a fair visual approximation of life as it was lived in that particular marine culture. He painted his Grand Canal, Venice, towards the northwest for Henry Grey, Duke of Kent, who like many other British aristocrats bought Canaletto’s work as a souvenir of the then-fashionable Grand Tour. The lagoon, which Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal: 1697–1768) lays out as hundreds of trembling green discs and half-moons, is a visual inventory of Venetian watercraft: fishing boat, freight ship, gondolas of various kinds and purposes (canopied for those who could afford them, exposed for those who couldn’t), and traghetti, the cheap-transit ferries that carried standing passengers from one bank to another. It’s a lived-in space: servant women shake out carpets and linens from balconies, bedsheets drape from window ledges, and atop the grand Ca’ Pesaro roofers are re-setting tiles.
The Canaletto is the main attraction of an exhibition, From Brueghel to Canaletto, currently at the San Diego Museum of Art, which contains mostly work produced in the Low Countries, all from the collection of Juan Manuel Grasset, a Spanish-born Frenchman whose holdings are heavy with 17th-century Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish pictures. Many of the 40 works on display are virtuosic still lifes and banquet paintings, the sort of thing that flaunted the new naturalism — sharply ruffled flowers (tulips everywhere), tightly or languidly curled lemon peels fallen just so on finely grained table tops, dragonflies and lizards, and vanitas items like rotting grapes and droopy leaves. The 15 or so flower pictures, hung closely together, are so similar in genre and presentation that it took me a while to sort out the beautiful from the flashy, the fresh from the conventionalized.
In Jacob van Hulsdonck’s still lifes, you feel the strongest impulse of naturalistic art, to re-make the visible world in its own non-idealized image; it was a critical passage in art’s ongoing, obsessive negotiation with exact likeness. Van Hulsdonck especially liked to paint traces of the outdoors indoors, in the form of tender dew drops on the leaves of plants and on tabletops whose grain rises through the dew. In one airy, buoyant still life with peaches and grapes, he paints light as if it’s emitted by objects, not as light reflects upon things, though his eye and hand occasionally saturate the flowers in his pictures with their eventual rottenness. One flower picture, by Johan Laurentz Jensen, jumps from the crowd: his Still Life with Flowers is almost sick-making in its prolixity of crowded lilies, irises, roses, carnations, and their cramped surround of stems, roots, petals, and leaves. He seems to be daring himself to muster as many plants as possible inside a tight frame. It has a fervid energy of seeing I missed in other pictures in the exhibition.
The other exhibition headliner, Jan Brueghel the Elder, is represented by a river landscape featuring a fish market and boats. Brueghel worked in Italy from 1589 to 1596 and brought back to Antwerp a heightened, more fastidious naturalistic style that helped refresh Netherlandish landscape art. The landscape was changing. In the 1600s the Dutch reclaimed over 300 square miles of land from the sea. Painters of the time jumped on the opportunity to depict the margins where land meets sea. Brueghel’s 1610 Wooded River Landscape buzzes with peasant and fishermen culture. It’s really a picture of the busyness of commerce: fishmongers peddle their catch, farmers hawk grain and produce, informal bartering goes on among town folk, and in the high background stands an image of industry, a windmill.
Dutch culture wasn’t all labor. Contemporary painters recorded scenes of leisure and play among the peasant and expanding middle classes. My personal favorites are Esais van den Velde’s winter scene of ice skaters, some nattily attired, showing their moves while a peasant woman under a makeshift canopy provisions them with fried pancakes, and Barent Avercamp’s frozen-river scene of nearly every sort of ice travel: skates, horse-drawn sleighs, and sleds of various kinds — one happy young woman is being pushed around in a basket-shaped ice-scooter while two good burghers swan along playing a Netherlandish hockey-style game called kolf. The entire society seems to be enjoying a good time.
From Brueghel to Canaletto surveys the cultural contentments and visual pleasures of a prospering society. For a dose of discontent and beautiful disgusts, cross the upstairs rotunda to a small room where a sampling of Expressionist pictures from the museum’s permanent collection is hanging. (They first appeared in a 2012 special exhibition of 48 Expressionist pictures given to the museum by the Estate of Vance E. Kondon and Liesbeth Giesberger.) Instead of the observant care and calm of Dutch naturalism, you’ll see bad nerves and agitated, peppery subjectivity. The intensest of these pictures is an Egon Schiele drawing of two women. The Austrian Schiele wasn’t the only early-20th-century artist to depict raw sexuality, but he more than any contemporary represented the body as a stressed, bony, hungering, depleted site of sexuality where torpid pleasure was hardly distinguishable from agony. One woman, naked below the waist, lies face down between the legs of another, topless, woman. The face-up woman’s smudged red lipstick is a near color match of her exposed nipple. The visual rub of forms, the way the blue ribbings of one woman’s skirts string into the edging of the other’s shirtwaist, acts out sex’s definition-obliterating force.