Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco acquire rare work by Canaletto

Oct 20, 2022

Painting of canal with boats alongside stately church

Giovanni, Antonio Canal, called Canaletto (Venice 1697-1768), Venice, the Grand Canal looking East with Santa Maria della Salute (detail), oil on canvas 52 1/2 x 65 3/8 in. (133.4 x 165.4 cm.)

Venice, the Grand Canal looking East with Santa Maria della Salute to remain in San Francisco through a generous donation by Diane B. Wilsey

SAN FRANCISCO – The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are delighted to announce the acquisition of Venice, the Grand Canal looking East with Santa Maria della Salute, a preeminent work by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto, considered the greatest Venetian view painter of the eighteenth century. The acquisition was made possible by a generous donation from the San Francisco philanthropist Diane B. Wilsey. Originally commissioned in 1750 by William Holbech for Farnborough Hall, UK, the painting has been continuously held in private collections, including most recently that of Ann and Gordon Getty. The painting will now take its place as one of the public treasures of San Francisco as part of the European Paintings collection at the Legion of Honor, widely known for its exceptional quality.

“We extend our deepest gratitude to Diane B. Wilsey for her generous gift of this breathtaking work to the city of San Francisco, and unmatched support of the Fine Arts Museums over many years, including funding our beloved free Saturdays program for Bay Area residents,” states Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “The first major painting by Canaletto to enter the Fine Arts Museums’ collections, Venice, the Grand Canal looking East with Santa Maria della Salute, builds on the Legion of Honor’s robust holdings of 18th-century Italian art.”

“With the Legion of Honor Centenary approaching in 2024, I wanted to give a gift to the museum, to the residents of San Francisco, and to our visitors from around the world, that matched the magnitude of this moment. It is an honor to help the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in its acquisitions of serious and important works of art that continue to elevate and distinguish its collection,” says Diane B. Wilsey.

“Christie’s is thrilled to have facilitated this pre-auction private sale that will benefit the public twice, by funding the arts and sciences through the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, and by ensuring that a Canaletto masterpiece will inspire and amaze visitors to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for generations to come,” commented Bonnie Brennan, President Of Christie’s Americas, “On behalf of Christie’s I want to congratulate Diane B. Wilsey and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for making this wonderful acquisition for the good of all a reality.”

Venice, the Grand Canal looking East with Santa Maria della Salute joins an exquisite group of eighteenth-century Italian pictures, including the Empire of Flora by Canaletto’s Venetian compatriot Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, architectural capricci by his Roman rival Panini, and further works by his Guardi and Pietro Longhi held in the Legion of Honor’s collection. The painting also joins a closely related view, painted a century and a half later depicting the Grand Canal and church of the Salute: a 1908 masterpiece by Claude Monet.

“Acquiring a masterpiece by Canaletto has long been a priority for our collections. Venice, the Grand Canal looking East with Santa Maria della Salute represents a cornerstone acquisition for the kickoff of our Gift of Art Campaign to celebrate the Legion of Honor's Centenary. Thanks to Mrs. Wilsey’s remarkable generosity, this masterpiece returns to San Francisco where it will be featured prominently as a highlight in our galleries,” says Melissa Buron, Director of Curatorial Affairs.

Bathed in late afternoon light, Canaletto’s composition looks eastward, down the Grand Canal, past the stately church of Santa Maria della Salute and the customs house on the Punta della Dogana. Sailboats and gondolas dot the placid water, and Venetians of various social classes mingle in the foreground. On the horizon, the bell towers of San Giorgio dei Greci, the Piazza San Marco, and San Pietro di Castelo float like buoys, while half the canvas is given over to a radiant sky, its clouds tinted pink by the approaching sunset.

“Depicting one of the most famous views in Venice, this is among the most important pictures by the artist to come onto the market in the last twenty years. Taking as its principal subject the church of Santa Maria della Salute, built in an act of civic piety following the 1629-1631 outbreak of plague in Venice, the painting offers contemporary audiences a symbol of hope and resilience as we emerge from our own pandemic” adds Emily Beeny, Curator in Charge of European Painting at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Canaletto left Venice in 1746, to spend nearly a decade in England, where he had developed a loyal clientele among the British gentlemen who had visited his Venetian workshop during their grand tours of Italy. Once such client was William Holbech (c. 1699-1771), the owner of a country house in Warwickshire called Farnborough Hall. Having acquired two earlier Venetian views by Canaletto (today in the Städtliche Kunstsammlungen, Augsburg; and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa), he commissioned this painting and its pendant, a view of the Bacino di San Marco from the Piazzetta (today in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), from the artist in 1749 or 1750. These four works were likely installed, along with a group of Roman view paintings by Canaletto’s Roman counterpart, Giovanni Paolo Panini, in the dining room at Farnborough Hall in the fall of 1750, and there they remained for nearly two hundred years. Ann and Gordon Getty acquired this picture in 1987, making it the centerpiece of their legendary San Francisco collection, which contained no fewer than four Venetian view paintings by Canaletto, as well as examples by his contemporaries and rivals Francesco Guardi and Bernardo Bellotto.

About Diane B. Wilsey
Over the past 40 years, Diane B. Wilsey has established herself as one of greatest benefactors in San Francisco history. A leader, trustee, and long standing supporter of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, she raised over $200 million for a building for the new de Young museum, has donated key works of art and supported numerous exhibitions at the museums. Beginning in 2019, she generously underwrites the museums’ Free Saturday program, providing free general admission to the de Young and Legion of Honor for Bay Area residents every Saturday throughout the year. Her support extends to other major cultural organizations such as SFOpera, whose Center for Opera bears her name, SF Ballet, UCSF, the renovation of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral to the SF Zoo, and further to the SFSPCA, The Shanti Project, ICA Christo Rey Academy, Tenderloin housing programs, innumerable hospitals and schools, and the City of San Francisco’s Pandemic recovery efforts. San Francisco Mayor London Breed honored her during Women’s History Month as one of four “Women in Philanthropy: the Givers and the Doers.”

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. The Fine Arts Museums’ rich collection of European paintings is presented throughout the Beaux-Arts architecture of the Legion of Honor’s galleries. The collection includes more than 800 masterpieces from the 14th to the early 20th centuries. The approximately 250 paintings on view present a survey of artistic accomplishments by Europe’s leading artists, from Fra Angelico to Claude Monet.

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