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Secrets of Canaletto's drawings revealed ahead of new exhibition

Release date: Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The 18th-century Venetian painter Canaletto is best known for his evocative images of Italy's most alluring city. Now infrared photography of the artist's drawings has revealed details of his working methods for the first time and has cast doubt on the long-held view that Canaletto used a 'camera obscura'. The remarkable discoveries were made during research for Canaletto & the Art of Venice, opening at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace in May.

Widely employed to analyse paintings, infrared photographic techniques are not often applied to works on paper. Royal Collection Trust conservators used a special camera to pass infrared rays through the surface of Canaletto's pen-and-ink drawings. Some drawing materials such as ink, are transparent to infrared wavelengths, and the camera only detected the carbon in chalk or pencil underdrawing. The resulting images have uncovered previously hidden marks on the paper, giving an extraordinary insight into Canaletto's artistic practices.  

Infrared photographs of six drawings of the Grand Canal, including The central stretch of the Grand Canal, c.1734, reveal Canaletto's extensive use of pencil underdrawing. They show how the artist set out the details of buildings with meticulous accuracy, plotting in the chimneys, façades and windows. Using a ruler, he extended the lines of the architecture into the water to serve as reflections of the buildings.  

Canaletto is long thought to have used a camera obscura to achieve accuracy in his work. A precursor of the modern camera, the device enabled artists to trace an inverted image of a view formed by rays of light passing through a small hole in a box. The results of the infrared photography clearly show that Canaletto was not tracing the outlines of  buildings in the open air but was carefully plotting out the scene with pencil and ruler in the studio.

Exhibition co-curator Rosie Razzall said, 'Only occasionally are the pencil lines in Canaletto's drawings visible to the naked eye. Although we knew that he made preparatory markings on paper, our discovery of the extent to which he used underdrawing to plan out his compositions was entirely unexpected and very exciting. The infrared imaging shows meticulous, mechanical ruled lines, which Canaletto would have intended to cover with the more spontaneous draughtsmanship usually associated with his work.' 

Canaletto & the Art of Venice is at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 19 May - 12 November 2017. 

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