A Master Class in Art– the New Gauguin and Canalleto Exhibits in the National Gallery

‘Ars Longa, vita brevis’ goes the old Latin saying— Art is long, life is short,  or better said, art lasts, but life doesn’t.   It doesn’t take long to realize the truth of this when you go and study the masters in the National Gallery in D.C.    There are two new excellent exhibits in the Gallery at present,  one on the work of  Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin  (1848-1903), a so-called post- Impressionist painter,  and another on Giovani Antonio Canal (1697-1768)  better known as  Canaletto.    We will deal with the latter first,  since he is from an earlier period of European art, and we will deal with  Gauguin’s less well know religious art from his time in Bretton.   First, here are a picture of the Pantheon like dome in the National Gallery, the main rotunda.

At the entrance way into the exhibit is this beautiful gondola from Venice, where  Mssr. Canal lived and painted.   It gives you a clear feel for one of the things that most inspired him— life in a city that was also life on the water.

Canaletto was so named because his father was also a painter, and so when the son became a painter he was dubbed ‘little Canal’  or ‘Canaletto’. And like so many sons he exceeded his father’s accomplishments in what he did.  Canaletto also had famous students, with Bellotto, who was his nephew and understudy, being the most well known. At this exhibit of Canaletto we also have quite a few Bellotto paintings, and one sees at once that while imitation is the greatest form of flattery,  Canaletto was the master when we compare their work side by side of the same scenes in Venice.   Canaletto was a trend bucker, as he preferred to paint outdoors rather than in a studio as was the custom of his day.   As the Wiki article on Canaletto stresses “Canaletto became known for his grand scenes of the canals of Venice and the  Doge’s Palace. His large-scale landscapes portrayed the city’s famed pageantry and waning traditions, making innovative use of atmospheric effects and strong local color. For these qualities, his works may be said to have anticipated  Impressionism.   This is perhaps why these paintings are exhibited at the same time as the work of  Gauguin.   Canaletto served as his father’s apprentice, painting theatrical scenes early in his career, which may explain some of his sense of staging, proportion and drama in the sky which characterize his paintings.

The work of Canaletto is crisp, clear, and full of light, exhibiting a precision of line.  His many paintings of the Cathedral of St. Mark and of St. Mark’s square, and of the Grand Canal as we see here are justly famous, and when Canaletto went to England in the early 18th century and painted in London, be became just as famous there as well.


Mention Paul Gauguin and you are apt to conjure up mental images of Tahiti and naked natives.   Less well known, unfortunately is Gaugin’s religious art, such as the ‘Yellow Christ’ an 1889 painting here displayed.  Gauguin painted in a sort of minimalist, or primitive style, quite deliberately, and was known for his brilliant colors.

One of his most fascinating paintings is the painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel, while viewed by Bretton maidens.   The conception of this painting was that these Bretton women were listening to a sermon about Jacob and the angel, and what is painted in the upper part of the canvas is the way they imagined the scene.

Perhaps Gauguin’s most famous religious painting is of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.  Beside the interesting choice to make his hair and beard orange, the other notable feature of the painting was showing the disciple’s departing from Jesus rather than staying with him.   Gauguin attempted to give this painting to a church in Bretton, but they turned it down.  I am betting they regret that now.

There are many more of these sorts of works in the exhibits in the National Gallery, which you ought to check out if you live in the vicinity.    Artists see the world through different lens than most of us, and sometimes they capture the essence, the truth, the beauty of something far better than words could ever do.

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