Artist whose paintings helped resurrect Warsaw goes on display in stunning new exhibition
To celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Warsaw’s best-known city portraitist Bernardo Bellotto, the Royal Castle in Warsaw is hosting an exhibition about him on a scale never seen before in the country.
There is no other source that reveals more about how the capital looked during the boom-time of the reign of the last king of Poland in the late eighteenth century.
Bellotto's city landscapes, or vedutes, let us see Warsaw how it really looked in astonishing photographic detail.
So realistic were they that over a century and a half later they served as a model for the reconstruction of the capital destroyed by the war.
Today, there are several buildings in Warsaw’s Old Town that whisk us like time machines back to Bellotto's time.
The exhibition, which is expected to draw huge crowds over throughout the autumn, shows Bellotto's artistic journey from his home in Venice to Warsaw via Dresden, Vienna and Munich.
The huge exhibition painstakingly planned since 2017 features 150 works drawn from prestigious galleries around the world, including the National Gallery and British Museum in London, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the J. P. Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco in Milan, and the Gemaeldegalerie in Dresden.
The exhibition is a joint undertaking between the Royal Castle and the Old Masters’ Gallery in Dresden.
Exhibition curator Magdalena Królikiewicz told TFN: “The exhibition is a continuation of one held in Dresden earlier this year. That one focused on the artist’s work there, while the Warsaw exhibition shows his entire life and work.”
“There has never been such a large exhibition on Bellotto in Poland before,” she added.
Bellotto was probably born 300 years ago in Venice on May 22, 1722, though January 30, 1721 is often quoted.
He studied painting there with his uncle, the famous vedutista Giovanni Antonio Canal, known by the diminutive form Canaletto.
Bellotto, keen to make a career for himself, adopted his uncle’s name. It was his ticket into the big league.
At the time, Venetian artists were highly regarded in Europe, so it's no wonder Bernardo Bellotto left the city.
The 25-year-old Bernardo was invited to the Saxon court in Dresden. The Elector Frederick August, and at the same time the King of Poland August III, appointed him court painter. The artist spent almost 20 years in Dresden.
During the Seven Years' War, Canaletto left Dresden and for three years worked on commissions for Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna and the Wittelsbachs in Munich.
On his return, he became a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden, but he lost his patrons after the death of August III.
In search of a new patron, in 1767, Bellotto set off for St Petersburg. He wanted to be employed at the court of Catherine the Great. On the way he stopped in Warsaw hoping to arrange an introduction to the royal court in Russia.
It was supposed to be a short stopover. However, he met royal portraitist Marcello Bacciarelli, who introduced him to King Stanislaus Augustus and soon became his court painter. Bellotto continued to work in Warsaw until his death in 1780.
In the new country, he observed with fascination the bustling streets of Warsaw and its inhabitants strolled about in colourful costumes.
His arrival coincided with the moment when Poland was entering the Enlightenment. He painted Krakowskie Przedmieście, where new buildings, the first cafés and restaurants were appearing.
He painted full scenes of city life, where the splendour of palaces contrasted with the street poor. In his paintings, he preserved even the smallest details.
In this way, he created 70 paintings, including 26 views of Warsaw and Wilanów. King Stanisław August Poniatowski also commissioned him to paint oil paintings and wall paintings, but they have not survived to the present day.
The 150 works on display show Bellotto’s journey from Venice to Warsaw via Dresden, Vienna and Munich.
The first room is dedicated to Venice, where visitors can admire the 'View of the Canal Grande and Santa Maria della Salute', brought to Warsaw from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
As many as 15 paintings have come to the exhibition from Dresden, including the Holy Cross Church in Dresden and views of buildings such as the Zwinger and the Wettin residence castle.
The exhibition ends in the famous Canaletto Room, where visitors can admire 22 views of Warsaw: Castle Square, Krasińskich Square, Żelazna Brama, Nowy Świat, Krakowskie Przedmieście, Miodowa and Długa.
And also the historical work The Election of Stanislaw August, dedicated to the election of the king on the electoral field in Wola.
A highlight is the ‘View of Warsaw from the Praga District’ – a vast panorama of the Vistula embankment, full of ships and boats.
In the foreground, on the Praga bank, there is the author himself, facing the viewers. Next to him, his son Lorenzo is working at his easel, who died at the age of 28, in 1770, when this painting was made.
It is a widely held belief that the rebuilding of Warsaw’s Old Town after the war was carried out based on Bellotto’s paintings.
Magdalena Królikiewicz explained that while most of the reconstruction was actually based on drawings made by students of the underground Faculty of Architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic, Bellotto’s paintings did indeed play an important role.
“The reconstruction of some individual buildings was based on Bellotto’s work, in particular the John townhouse at Castle Square and the St. Kazimierz church in the New Town,” she said.
Probably the most impressive is the reconstruction of the 18th-century, rococo John townhouse at 89 Krakowskie Przedmieście.
We can see it in one of Bellotto’s most beloved paintings ‘Krakowskie Przedmieście from the side of the Sigismund's Column’ from 1767-68.
In the course of time, it was transformed, and in September 1939 it was destroyed, to be rebuilt in 1949.
It is also a genuine example of rococo, common in the times of Canaletto, but very rare in Warsaw architecture today.
Bellotto’s career in Warsaw ended with his death of a stroke on 17 November 1780. He was buried in the Capuchin church at Miodowa Street in Warsaw. Records have survived which show that the king spared no expense in maintaining his tomb. Unfortunately, the artist's burial place did not survive.
The exhibition Bernardo Bellotto. On the 300th Anniversary of the Painter's Birth will be on view until January 8 next year and will be accompanied by an educational program for students, teachers, families with children and adults.