We’ve come to associate different forms of transport with art movements: railways are decidedly Impressionist, and aircraft contrastingly modernist, for instance. But long before the railways cut their way across meadows and bridges, much of Europe moved its goods by water; inland that often meant by canal. This weekend I look at paintings of canals to see how their history is reflected in art.
Canals were first dug for irrigation of crops in the Fertile Crescent, but soon came to be used for transporting produce, goods, and anything which was too heavy or bulky to draw by cart. Chinese, Egyptian and Greek engineers put huge teams of labourers to work digging canals large enough to support trade, including the Ancient Suez Canal which linked the Nile (hence the Mediterranean) with the Red Sea.
The first modern canals were dug in Bavaria, the ‘Low Countries’ around Belgium and the Netherlands, and in England during the Middle Ages. They also came to form the main thoroughfares in the watery city of Venice as it grew. Venice is something of a special case which I’ll consider in the next article. Early Dutch landscape artists quite frequently included local canals in their paintings.
Meindert Hobbema’s view of The Haarlem Lock, Amsterdam from 1663-65 is a good example, showing a working lock with a raising bridge, and the masts of many ships in the harbour beyond.
The building of canals became common major civil engineering projects as the Industrial Revolution swept across much of Europe during the latter half of the eighteenth century. But they seem to have escaped the attention of artists, even those like Philip James de Loutherbourg and Joseph Wright of Derby who painted superb scenes of its fire, smoke and industrial sites. It seems to have been the topographic artists at the very end of the century who first started to paint canals in earnest.
JMW Turner’s magnificently atmospheric painting of Chichester Canal from about 1828 is one of the earliest major works to make a canal its motif. This shows a merchant ship under way from the distant city of Chichester, just inland of the south coast of England, along the five miles or so to take it to Chichester Harbour and the English Channel beyond. This short canal had only opened six years earlier, and operated for just over a century.
In about 1832, Turner painted a view of Dudley Castle and the Dudley Canal, one of the busy industrial waterways which had been dug around Birmingham in the English Midlands during the late eighteenth century. I regret that I can’t locate a usable image of that painting, but in 1835 it was turned into this fine engraving and published. This is one of the best visual records of a heavily-industrialised canal during this period before the advent of the railways.
In case you’re wondering why I haven’t included John Constable’s superb landscapes of the River Stour from the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, that river isn’t actually a canal, although it was ‘improved’ during the early eighteenth century to enable its use for commercial traffic.
Away from the ironworks, fire and smoke of industrial England, urban canals were bustling with activity. Charles Leickert is better known for his winter landscapes of frozen waterways in the Netherlands, but his Urban Landscape from 1856 shows active trading taking place beside a canal in a large Dutch town.
Unlike the later railways, many canals passed through tranquil countryside without disrupting their calm. Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch painted this View near the Geest Bridge in 1868, when this canal was still in active use. The Trekvliet Shipping Canal shown here links The Hague with neighbouring villages of Rijswijk and Voorburg; both have now been swallowed up into The Hague conurbation.
When the Suez Canal was finally completed after ten years of construction, in 1869, many artists went out to visit this spectacular sight, but I have only been able to find one painting of it during those early years.
Painted by the great marine artist Ivan Aivazovsky shortly after its official opening on 17 November 1869, Suez Canal shows a convoy of ships passing through in a quite unearthly light.
The city of Paris isn’t known for its canals, but apparently has three: St-Martin, St-Denis and Canal de l’Ourcq, which connect to the River Seine.
Alfred Sisley’s view of The Canal Saint-Martin, Paris from 1872 shows a placid and nearly-disused stretch of canal in the centre of Paris. This network of canals had originally been intended to supply the city with healthy drinking water from the River Ourcq to the north-east, and was ordered by Napoleon I. It brought supplies of grain and building materials into the heart of the city, but is now only used to entertain tourists on boat trips.
As the railways expanded rapidly during the middle of the nineteenth century, they took over the task of moving most produce and goods around those parts of Europe which they served. Many canals ceased carrying commercial traffic, and they steadily became neglected, with locks in disrepair and the waterways filling with silt.
Adolf Kaufmann’s undated painting of Boats in a Canal shows a typical canal in many towns and cities across Europe, with a couple of old flat-bottomed sailing barges lying idle.
When Claude Monet moved to the Netherlands in 1871 after sheltering in England for the Franco-Prussian War, there were still boats active in the Canal at Zaandam, to the north-west of Amsterdam.
During the winter, though, many of the smaller canals froze over, providing skaters with first class highways, as shown in Johan Jongkind’s painting of a Canal in Holland in Winter from 1873.
Alfred Sisley painted some wonderful landscapes in the country to the south of the Forest of Fontainebleau, near Saint-Mammès. Among them is this view of The Loing Canal from 1884. This connects the Briare Canal to the River Seine, and is one of the series of waterways which join Paris to Lyon, known as the Bourbonnais Route. These were constructed in the early eighteenth century, and still carry barges of grain from the farms in central France.
In the next article, I’ll look at paintings of the decline of canals from the end of the nineteenth century, and briefly at those of Venice.