BA for camera obscuraused by Canaletto


Tricks of the Trade

Did Canaletto and his contemporaries have time to paint all the paintings attributed to them? Evidence is emerging that they did not. Canaletto was supposed to have painted nine hundred painting in his lifetime, surely an impossible feat for one man. So are a number of them fakes or was there another way that they were produced? Common sense and research are pointing to the way it may have been accomplished. Most painters of the time ran small factories with apprentices doing the bulk of the mundane work. This is a clue, but it is not the complete answer. So how was it done?

The Master, in this case Canaletto, would have been contacted by a prospective patron, or most likely he touted for work amongst the rich and famous of the day until he got a commission. He hawked samples of his work from place to place to sell to passing acquaintances when commissions were scarce. Meanwhile his apprentices worked long hours on previous commissions back at his factory, for that was what it was, a factory with an organised production line. Today factories full of artists specialising in different aspects of a painting, such as sea, sky, flowers, figures or fabric, still exist in places like Hong Kong where the workers go about their work using the same age old techniques. Canaletto having secured a commission such as a view of the Grand Canal, hence maybe his name, would have used his skills and techniques to produce a quick sketch that would have been worked on or from by local jobbing artists or apprentices in a factory that he would have set up in the country where he was working.

Canoletto often produced pictures that were above street level and not always portraying houses where they should be. Above ground level gives a clue as to how the views were obtained. The person commissioning a painting would have wanted a view from the main room of their house and that room was almost always on the first floor. By putting curtains over the windows and selecting a view from a small hole within one curtain and placing a lens or lenses in this hole, it was possible to project the light coming through it onto a sheet of paper or a canvas to portray an upside down image of the view outside the room. Who invented the pinhole camera, for that is what it was, is unclear, but some evidence points to the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck having used a camera obscura fitted with a piece of glass or lens in 1430 to project an image onto a canvas, but the idea had been known for centuries. Then the image was traced on a sheet of paper or a canvas by drawing round the image display. The size of the image was controlled by placing the paper at the required distance from the lens in the window curtain. Canoletto would then remove the curtains and set the paper or canvas up on a easel to fill in the colours and make notes to be sent back to his factory, if the commission was not that important to be finished there and then. Maybe he locked the doors to the room before setting about his work so that no one could find out how it was done. After all he did not want to be accused of witchcraft. Maybe this is why few clues survive of the techniques employed. No different to today when all manner of antics are used to obtain a desired result. This technique was undoubtedly used by other artists such as Caravaggio and Vermeer to paint portraits — they used a darkened room or cellar lit by candles to reflect the illuminated model through a lens surrounded by curtains to the receiving surface on which they traced the projected image. This was about the time that paintings started to take on a new realism which could be explained by the use of these devices.

This brings us to the better known camera obscura, a similar device whereby a mirror was fixed at an angle at some height from the ground within a darkened building or tent to obtain a view from outside which was then drawn on paper or a canvas spread on a table or the ground. A portable version is known as a camera lucida. Canaletto and his contemporaries were also known to have used these devices. Examples of the camera obscuar have been found and preserved for exhibition. It also explains how so much accurate detail was obtained.

Hence maybe the saying, “It’s all done by mirrors.” © BA

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