Venetian Painting – Pietro Longhi

WE have here a master who is peculiarly the Venetian of the eighteenth century, a genre-painter whose charm it is not easy to surpass, yet one who did not at the outset find his true vocation. Longhi’s first undertakings, specimens of which exist in certain palaces in Venice, were elaborate frescoes, showing the baneful influence of the Bolognese School, in which he studied for a time under Giuseppe Crispi. He attempts to place the deities of Olympus on his ceilings in emulation of Tiepolo, but his Juno is heavy and common, and the Titans at her feet appear as a swarm of sprawling, ill-drawn nudities. He shows no faculty for this kind of work, but he was thirty-two before he began to paint those small easel-pictures which in his own dainty style illustrate the “Vanity Fair” of his period, and in which the eighteenth century lives for us again.

His earliest training was in the goldsmith’s art, and he has left many drawings of plate, exquisite in their sense of graceful curve and their unerring precision of line. It was a moment when such things acquired a flawless purity of outline, and Longhi recognised their beauty with all the sensitive perception of the artist and the practised workman. His studies of draperies, gestures, and hands are also extra-ordinarily careful, and he seems besides to have an intimate acquaintance with all the elegant dissipation and languid excesses of a dying order. We feel that he has himself been at home in the masquerade, has accompanied the lady to the fortune-teller, and, leaning over her graceful shoulder, has listened to the soothsayer’s murmurs. He has attended balls and routs, danced minuets, and gossiped over tiny cups of China tea. He is the last chronicler of the Venetian feasts, and with him ends that long series that began with Giorgione’s concert and which developed and passed through suppers at Cana and banquets at the houses of Levi and the Pharisee. We are no longer confronted with the sumptuosity of Bonifazio and Veronese ; the immense tables covered with gold and silver plate, the long lines of guests robed in splendid brocades, the stream of servants bearing huge salvers, or the bands of musicians, nor are there any more alfresco concerts, with nymphs and bacchantes. Instead there are masques, the life of the Ridotto or gaming-house, routs and intrigues in dainty boudoirs, and surreptitious love-making in that city of eternal carnival where the bauta was almost a national costume. Longhi holds that post which in French art is filled by Watteau, Fragonard, and Lancret, the painters of fêtes galantes, and though he cannot be placed on an equal footing with those masters, he is representative and significant enough. On his canvases are preserved for us the mysteries of the toilet, over which ladies and young men of fashion dawdled through the morning, the drinking of chocolate in négligé, the momentous instants spent in choosing headgear and fixing patches, the towers of hair built by the modish coiffeur—children trooping in, in hoops and uniforms, to kiss their mother’s hand, the fine gentleman choosing a waistcoat and ogling the pretty embroideress, the pert young maidservant slipping a billet-doux into a beauty’s hand under her husband’s nose, the old beau toying with a fan, or the discreet abbé taking snuff over the morning gazette. The grand ladies of Longhi’s day pay visits in hoop and farthingale, the beaux make ” a leg,” and the lacqueys hand chocolate. The beautiful Venetians and their gallants swim through the gavotte or gamble in the Ridotto, or they hasten to assignations, disguised in wide bauti and carrying preposterous muffs. The Correr Museum contains a number of his paintings and also his book of original sketches. One of .the most entertaining of his canvases represents a visit of patricians to a nuns’ parlour. The nuns and their pupils lend an attentive ear to the whispers of the world. Their dresses are trimmed with point de Venise, and a little theatre is visible in the background. This and the Sala del Ridotto ” which hangs near, are marked by a free, bold handling, a richness of colouring, and more animation than is usual in his genre-pictures. He has not preserved the lovely, indeterminate colour or the impressionist touch which was the natural inheritance of Watteau or Tiepolo. His backgrounds are dark and heavy, and he makes too free a use of body colour ; but his attitude is one of close observation—he enjoys depicting the life around him, and we suspect that he sees in it the most perfect form of social intercourse imaginable. Longhi is sometimes called the Goldoni of painting, and he certainly more nearly resembles the genial, humorous playwright than he does Hogarth, to whom he has also been compared. Yet his execution and technique are a little like Hogarth’s, and it is possible that he was influenced by the elder and stronger master, who entered on his triumphant career as a satirical painter of society about 1734. This was just the time when Longhi abandoned his unlucky decorative style, and it is quite possible that he may have met with engravings of the “Marriage à la mode,” and was stimulated by them to the study of eighteenth-century manners, though his own temperament is far removed from Hogarth’s moral force and grim satire.

His serene, painstaking observation is never distracted by grossness and violence. The Venetians of his day may have been — undoubtedly were—effeminate, licentious, and de-cadent, but they were kind and gracious, of refined manners, well-bred, genial and intelligent, and so Longhi has transcribed them. In the time which followed, ceilings were covered by Boucher, pastels by Latour were in demand, the scholars of David painted classical scenes, and Pietro Longhi was forgotten. Antonio Francesco Correr bought five hundred of his drawings from his son, Alessandro, but his works were ignored and dispersed. The classic and romantic fashions passed, but it was only in 185o that the brothers de Goncourt, writing on art, revived consideration for the painter of a bygone generation. Many of his works are in private collections, especially in England, but few are in public galleries. The National Gallery is fortunate in possessing several excellent examples.

PRINCIPAL WORKS

Bergamo. Lochis : At the Gaming Table ; Taking Coffee. Baglioni : The Festival of the Padrona.

Dresden. Portrait of a Lady.

Hampton Court. Three genre-pictures.

London. Visit to a Circus ; Visit to a Fortune-Teller ; Portrait. Mond Collection : Card party ; Portrait.

Venice. Academy : Six genre-paintings.

Correr Museum : Eleven paintings of Venetian life ; Portrait of Goldoni.

Palazzo Grassi : Frescoes ; Scenes of fashionable life. Quirini-Stampalia : Eight paintings Portraits.