Nephew and pupil of the celebrated Venetian view painter Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto began by depicting various locations in Venice in the precisely topographical style of his uncle. As he traveled throughout Italy, however, Bellotto gradually developed a distinctive and increasingly poetic manner of his own. The turning point in the artist's career came in 1747, when Augustus III, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, invited him to Dresden, where he became court painter. Though accurate enough to have served centuries later in the post-World War II reconstruction of the city, Bellotto's varied and imaginatively conceived views of Dresden transcend the limits of topography. When Prussian troops captured the Saxon capital in the autumn of 1756, Bellotto moved on to work for the courts of Vienna and of Munich, where his vedute (view paintings) became even more artistically complex. The influence of Ruisdael and other seventeenth-century Dutch landscapists played a crucial role in forming Bellotto's mature concept of landscape. After attempting unsuccessfully to resurrect his career in Dresden (his munificent patron had died), Bellotto ended by working for Augustus' successor in Warsaw, the last great European center he recorded and ennobled through his art.
Although Bellotto was primarily a painter of the urban scene, his Fortress of Königstein is one of five large canvases, commissioned by Augustus III in the spring of 1756 but never delivered, depicting the renovated medieval fortress in the countryside near Dresden. The other canvases in the series, of identical size and format, consist of images of both the interior and the exterior of the castle, viewed from a closer vantage point than that adopted for the Gallery's painting. All five paintings were probably imported into England during the artist's lifetime, and they remained there until this painting was acquired by the Gallery in 1993. The two exterior views were together in the collection of the earl of Derby at Knowsley House, Lancashire, until 2017 when one of them was acquired by the National Gallery, London. The other two views, taken from inside the castle walls, belong to the City Art Gallery, Manchester. The castle of Königstein, almost unchanged in appearance today, sits atop a mountain rising precipitously from the Elbe River valley. Exploiting the picturesque quality of the site, Bellotto invested the Gallery's picture with a sense of drama and monumentality rarely found in eighteenth-century view painting. Bellotto's panorama effectively contrasts the imposing mass of the fortress, perched on a rocky precipice, with the broad expanse of cloud-filled sky and with the bucolic scene of rustic peasants and their animals, picked out in the foreground by the flickering light. The middle ground is occupied by forests, fields, and pathways leading to the castle at the apex of the mountain. In Bellotto's interpretation, Königstein castle becomes an awesome--and ironic--symbol of his patron's might at the very moment of his defeat.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/italian-paintings-17th-and-18th-centuries.pdf
Commissioned by Friedrick Augustus III, king of Poland and elector of Saxony [1696-1763]; Henry Temple, 2nd viscount Palmerston [1739-1802], London; Henry John Temple, 3rd viscount Palmerston [1784-1865], London; who gave it, perhaps to pay a debt, to William Lygon, 1st earl Beauchamp [1747-1816], Madresfield Court, Worcestershire; by inheritance to Else, Countess Beauchamp [1895-1989]; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1991, no. 18); (Bernheimer Fine Arts Ltd., London and Munich, and Meissner Fine Art Ltd., Zurich and London); sold 3 June 1993 to NGA.
- [On special display], Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, 1991.
- International Antique Dealers Fair, New York, 1992.
- The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, Royal Academy of Arts, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museo del Settecento Veneziano - Ca'Rezzonico, Venice, 1994-1995, no. 256 (London and Washington), no. 79 (Venice), repro.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Bernardo Bellotto 1722-1780, Museo Correr, Venice; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2001, no. 65, repro. (shown only in Houston).
- Bernardo Bellotto genannt Canaletto - Europäische Veduten, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2005, no. 16, repro.
The support is a fine plain-weave fabric
of medium weight, prepared with a light red ground of
medium thickness. The paint has been applied with fluent
brushwork and the handling reveals considerable variety
in touch and application. In many places in the landscape
and fortress the paint has been applied with strong
brushstrokes, employing fairly thick paint to vary
thickness and texture. The deliberate use of a fairly dry brush to create
texture is particularly evident in the fortress. The upper-right
edge of the escarpment was originally placed 4 cm
to the right of its present location; indications of this
change are faintly visible. In contrast, the sky has been painted
more loosely and rapidly, the broad, sweeping strokes imparting
a sense of active weather, light, and movement.
The thinner application of paint in the sky has permitted the
red ground to show through, although in certain areas the aging
of the paint, previous varnish removals, and abrasion
have revealed more of the red ground than was originally
intended. Aside from minor abrasion in the sky and trees
in the lower-left foreground, the painting is in exceptional
condition. It was treated in 1992 by Bruno Heimberg at the
Doerner Institute, Munich, prior to acquisition. Additional
conservation treatment, including varnish removal and in
painting, was carried out by David Bull in 1993.
- Scharf, George. A Descriptive and Historical Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures at Knowsley Hall. London, 1985: 10.
- Sotheby's, London. Old Master Paintings, 11 December 1991: 35-37, color repro. 34, 36, 37 (details).
- Bowron, Edgar Peters. Bernardo Bellotto: The Fortress of Königstein. Washington, D.C., 1993: 1-14, figs. 1, 2, 10.
- Bowron, Edgar Peters. "Acquisition in Focus: Bellotto's Fortress of Königstein at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C." Apollo 140 (1994): 72-73.
- The Glory of Venice. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Museo del Settecento Veneziano - Ca'Rezzonico, Venice; Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, 1994-1995: 361-375, 428, cat. 256, color pl. 368.
- National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of A rt, Washington, Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.,1995: 115, repro.
- De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 14-18, color repro. 15.
- Bernardo Bellotto en Dresde en la Galeria de Pinturasde Dresde. Bilboko Arte Eder Museoa, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, 1998: 27, repro. 26.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 234-235, no. 185, color repro.
- Brogi, Alessandro. “Bernardo Bellotto.” In 100 Paysages: Exposition d’un genre, edited by Michael Jakob and Claire-Lise Schwok. Collection Archigraphy Paysages series. Gollion, CH, 2011: no. 79, color repro.
- "Art for the Nation: The Story of the Patrons' Permanent Fund." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 53 (Fall 2015): 12-13, repro.
- Warner-Johnson, Tim, and Jeremy Howard, eds. Colnaghi: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. London, 2016: 204-205, color plate 11.