During the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, and until the spread of the railways a hundred years later, canals across Europe had been major routes for the transport of grain and other farm produce, raw materials for and products from new industrial sites. By the end of the nineteenth century, their commercial use was in decline or had already ceased, and many canals lay derelict.
The Italian city of Milan also had a thriving network of five canals, until they were covered over from the 1930s onwards. When Emilio Gola painted this view Along the Milan Canal in about 1890-92, they already seem to be in relative disuse, more of a place to hang your washing out on a bright winter’s day, with snow still on the rooves of the tenement blocks.
Late in his career, Sisley was still painting his way along The Canal du Loing at Moret (1892), in a thoroughly wintry scene this time.
For Théo van Rysselberghe, the eycatching geometry of a Canal in Flanders (1894) was too good an opportunity for this combination of radical perspective projection, rhythmic trees, and meticulous reflections, which together make this one of the great Divisionist paintings.
Karl Friedrich H Schuster is now an obscure artist, but his view of Fishermen’s Houses on the City Canal painted in 1896 shows another urban canal in steady decay, then only used by fishermen to keep their punts.
In North America, canals had enjoyed a similar period of growth, followed by steady decline with the advent of railroads. Some major ship canals, including those used to link the Great Lakes, remain in heavy use, though.
In about 1900, Edward Lamson Henry painted this watercolour of Nearing the Bend, which shows only too well the eventual fate of many canals, providing trips out for locals and tourists. Like many ‘narrow boats’ built for smaller canals, this is being hauled at a sedate pace by the team of horses at the right edge of the painting.
The final work, before moving on to look at Venice, is Helen Hyde’s unusual nocturne, a colour woodcut, showing Moonlight on the Viga Canal (1912). This canal runs from Mexico City to the suburb of Santa Anita.
One city has become so strongly associated with canals that I can’t complete this pair of articles without looking briefly at them: Venice, traditionally founded by refugees on a group of 118 islands in a lagoon at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, in around 421 CE. Rather than being dug in dry land, its canals are the remains of the watery gaps between islands.
Venice came to prominence as an artistic centre in the Renaissance, and since then its unique features have been recorded in paint by a rich stream of painters.
Many of the most famous views of the canals of Venice were painted, appropriately, by Canaletto, who built his reputation on them. Although they appear to be faithful depictions, and it has been claimed that he used a camera obscura for the purpose, careful analysis has shown that he exercised ample creative licence. Some feature crowds attending major festivities, such as The Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day (1759-61).
His successor Francesco Guardi is less well-known, but maintained the tradition, with his Regatta at the Rialto Bridge from 1770-9 (above) and an undated view of The Bucintoro Festival of Venice (below).
A century later, a new generation of views of the canals was painted not by a Venetian, but by the Spaniard Martín Rico. Many of these show lesser-known canals and less-frequented areas, like A Canal in Venice from about 1875. Although populated by the occasional gondola and a small clutch of children, they have a wonderful air of peace and serenity. His broken reflections are painted quite tightly although he is reputed to have painted mainly en plein air.
For many of us, though, the canals of Venice will always be associated with the brilliant bravura brushstrokes of John Singer Sargent.