In Review

Exhibition of the week: Bernardo Bellotto’s The Königstein Views Reunited

This small, free exhibition at the National Gallery should not be missed

Of all the many castles in Saxony, the medieval fortress of Königstein is by some distance “the most impressive”, said Lucy Davies in The Daily Telegraph. Perched on an imposing hilltop, it towers 800 metres over the Elbe River and dominates the landscape for miles around. “This is why, in 1756, Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and one of Europe’s most powerful rulers, commissioned the greatest view-painter of his day to record its splendour for all the world to see.”

Bernardo Bellotto (1722–1780), nephew of the much more famous Canaletto, had already spent a decade as a court artist to Frederick-Augustus, painting remarkable urban landscapes of his magnificent capital, Dresden. It took him two years and five canvases, each one studying the citadel from a different perspective, to capture the fortress to his satisfaction. Ironically, by the time Bellotto was “applying his final touches” to the series, hostile Prussian forces had crushed Saxony’s armies and were laying siege to Dresden. Frederick-Augustus, who had initially taken refuge in the Königstein itself, had to flee to his lands in Poland.

As a result, the series was dispersed across Europe, eventually ending up in collections across Britain and the US. It is only now, in this small, free exhibition at the National Gallery – Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited – that the works have been brought together as intended. The chance to see these wonderfully detailed and atmospheric paintings should not be missed. 

“These are big, towering heavy works,” said Eddy Frankel in Time Out. “They loom over you with their pillars of grey stone and stark, sharp angles.” Three paintings here are views of the fortress from afar, in which Bellotto deploys “every weapon of perspective in his arsenal” to emphasise and exaggerate the already vast architectural scale.

The Venetian was hired “to make his boss look big and impressive. And it worked.” Yet, somehow, he also finds the space for impossibly precise detail: the works teem with minuscule likenesses of “shepherds shepherding, gardeners gardening, courtiers courtiering”. This is especially evident in the other two pictures, which view the Königstein from within its walls. 

Indeed, it often “looks as if the entire Dresden court are whiling away their time in the castle precincts”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. In one of the views inside the walls, we see “bewigged men and women with parasols” strolling in the sunshine. Elsewhere, in “a Hogarthian touch amid the splendour”, a man is glimpsed “reaching for his wallet as he makes an agreement with a young woman”.

In a similar vein, wall texts highlight another mildly sordid detail: the fortress of Königstein, we learn, contained “a 60,000-gallon wine cask in its cellar”, which Bellotto acknowledges by depicting “a gang of ragamuffins at its door, eager to drown their sorrows”. Although ostensibly propaganda images, these paintings contain all forms of human life. They also look forward to Romanticism, finding “awe in the rocks, walls and dark windows of an enigmatic castle”.

This is a beautifully curated exhibition which gives an “eye-opening” perspective on a chapter of European history largely ignored in this country. Small though it is, this is a “seismic” show.

Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited, National Gallery, London WC2 (020-7747 2885; nationalgallery.org.uk). Until 31 October. Free entry

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