In the spring of 1826, Richard Parkes Bonington spent four weeks in Venice with his patron, Charles Rivet. The trip, the culmination of six years spent on a sketching tour of Europe, took him to northern France, London, and finally Italy. In addition to the numerous graphite drawings he made of picturesque views of Venice, he produced nearly 30 works in both watercolor and oil. Many of these works were completed on-site, while others would become the basis for more complex pictures composed later in the studio. Painted upon his return, The Grand Canal is a stunning example of this practice.
A distinct pencil drawing, generally thought to be applied on-site, is visible throughout the composition—particularly in the area of the Rialto Bridge in the distance. Technical analysis reveals that the artist made additions to the painting at a later date, and highlights on areas of the architecture as well as the figures in the foreground were made after the initial paint layer had dried. Nevertheless, the work has an overall appearance of spontaneity. Bonington's early training and skill as a watercolorist is evident in the luminosity and clarity he achieves in the handling of paint. His vigorous brushwork and love of color were perfectly suited to the mercurial effects of light on the lagoon.
Bonington's "marvelous facility," as described by his friend and fellow painter Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), is never more evident than in this small, but exquisite, painting. More than half of the composition is given over to the sky, with its varying shades of blue and white and sweeping, lively brushstrokes. At the same time, the eye is drawn to the architectural façades and the play of light as it bounces from building to building. Bonington's virtuosity as a painter is characterized by his ability to simultaneously exercise restraint and dazzle us with his manual dexterity.
Although his career was brief (he died from tuberculosis at the age of 26), Bonington had a reputation as a master of light and atmosphere, recognized not only by his contemporaries but by following generations as well. In addition to landscapes and seacapes, he was also known for works of genre and historical scenes. His oeuvre is all the more remarkable when we remember that his considerable artistic output was produced in roughly 10 years. In a 1937 review of the exhibition Richard Parkes Bonington and his Circle, Ralph Edwards writes that "on the evidence of such works there is justification for the belief that a landscape painter of rare promise was lost in Bonington." Despite the brevity of his career, he, along with John Constable (1776–1837), is credited with inspiring the French romantic school and influencing painters of the Barbizon school of landscape painting.
Marks and Labels
on bottom strainer member: red wax seal
The artist's father, Richard Bonington; (his sale, Christie & Manson, London, 23-24 May 1834, 2nd day, no. 148); Welbore Ellis Agar, 2nd Earl of Normanton [1778-1868], Somerley, Ringwood, Hampshire; by descent in the family to his great-great-grandson, Shaun James Christian Welbore Ellis Agar, 6th Earl of Normanton [b. 1945], Somerley; consigned to (Sayn-Wittgenstein Fine Art, Inc., New York); purchased 13 July 2001 by NGA.
- Possibly Drawings and Sketches of the Late R.P. Bonington, Cosmorama Rooms, London, 1834, no. 57.
- Bonington, The Guildhall of St. George, King's Lynn, England, 1961, no. 18.
- Pictures, Watercolours and Drawings by R.P. Bonington, In Aid of The King's Lynn Festival Fund, Thomas Agnew and Sons, London, 1962, no. 16, repro.
- R.P. Bonington, 1802-1828, Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham; Castle Museum, Norwich; Southampton Art Gallery, 1965, no. 278.
- Venice Rediscovered, in aid of The Venice in Peril Fund, Wildenstein & Co., London, 1972, no. 3, fig. 5.
- Dubuisson, A., and C.E. Hughes, Richard Parkes Bonington, His Life and Work, London, 1924: 178, no. 148.
- Noon, Patrick. Richard Parkes Bonington: 'on the pleasure of painting'. Exh. cat. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; Petit Palais, Paris. New Haven, 1991: 214, under no. 98.
- Conisbee, Philip, and Franklin Kelly. "Small is Beautiful." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 34 (Spring 2006): 2-17, fig. 7.