Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals:
The Camera Obscura
Washington, DC—The camera obscura (Latin for "dark room") is an optical device that creates an image by focusing rays of light onto a screen or sheet of paper. Its benefits for artists were noted by the Venetian nobleman Daniele Barbaro in 1568: "There on the paper you will see the whole view as it really is, with its distances, its colors and shadows and motion, the clouds, the water twinkling, the birds flying. By holding the paper steady, you can trace the whole perspective with a pen."
A forerunner of the modern camera, the camera obscura consisted first of a room, then later of a portable box with a small opening in one side. Light reflected by objects in the natural world enters the box through a lens set into the opening and projects an image onto the opposite surface. The image, like one formed on the retina of the eye, is upside down and reversed. In the camera obscuras included in the exhibition, an angled mirror inside the box reflects the image right side up (though still reversed) onto a glass plate on top of the box. A piece of paper placed over the glass allows the projected image to be traced. Other models of the camera obscura varied in size and complexity.
View Painting and the Camera Obscura
Originally developed as a scientific instrument, the camera obscura appealed to artists who used it as an aid to drawing outdoors. While the optical principles behind the camera obscura had been known since antiquity, portable devices similar to the ones exhibited nearby were first available toward the end of the 16th century. Previous models would have been too unwieldy to be of practical use for the artist. The camera obscura would have helped artists render the correct perspective of views seen from eye level. Francesco Guardi was praised for his success in using the device to artistic advantage. Canaletto apparently used one as well. In his drawing View of Santa Maria Formosa toward the Right Side of the Square, the sheet of paper was not large enough to include the top of the bell tower, which floats to the right. If the top were superimposed onto the tower, it would fit precisely, suggesting that the artist simply moved the paper to catch the image projected from the lens of a camera obscura.
Camera Obscura Demonstration
The exhibition includes three modern camera obscuras that are similar to the historical models on view. A mirror inside each camera reflects the image of the East Building atrium onto the glass plate on top of the box. As with all camera obscuras of this kind, the image is upright but reversed.
General InformationThe National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are at all times free to the public. They are located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, and are open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Gallery is closed on December 25 and January 1. For information call (202) 737-4215 or visit the Gallery's Web site at www.nga.gov. Follow the Gallery on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NationalGalleryofArt, Twitter at www.twitter.com/ngadc, and Instagram at http://instagram.com/ngadc.
Visitors will be asked to present all carried items for inspection upon entering. Checkrooms are free of charge and located at each entrance. Luggage and other oversized bags must be presented at the 4th Street entrances to the East or West Building to permit x-ray screening and must be deposited in the checkrooms at those entrances. For the safety of visitors and the works of art, nothing may be carried into the Gallery on a visitor's back. Any bag or other items that cannot be carried reasonably and safely in some other manner must be left in the checkrooms. Items larger than 17 by 26 inches cannot be accepted by the Gallery or its checkrooms.
Department of Communications
National Gallery of Art
2000B South Club Drive
Landover, MD 20785
phone: (202) 842-6353
e-mail: [email protected]
Chief of Communications
Sign up here to receive the latest news briefs from the National Gallery of Art Communications Office.
The Gallery also offers a broad range of newsletters for various interests. Follow this link to view the complete list.
Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals
Questions from members of the media may be directed to the Department of Communications at (202) 842-6353 or [email protected]
RSS (NEWS FEED)