Fake News circa 1700: Memory and Manipulation in Eyewitness Views

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s next special exhibition, Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe, opens Sunday, February 25. Monumental paintings by artists such as Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, and Giovanni Paolo Panini vividly re-create what it was like to be present at some of the most newsworthy events and impressive spectacles of eighteenth-century Europe.

The Ball Given by the Duc de Nivernais to Mark the Birth of the Dauphin, 1751. Giovanni Paolo Panini (Italian, 1691–1765). Oil on canvas; 168 x 132 cm. National Trust, Waddesdon Manor, The Rothschild Collection, 80.2007.2. © National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

These extraordinary works were often commissioned by rulers, princes, ambassadors, and religious dignitaries to commemorate key moments in their personal and professional lives. But were the depictions of these events faithful to what actually occurred, or are they more misleading — fake news circa 1700?

“While artists cultivated the impression that they were faithful chroniclers capturing an event on canvas just as they had witnessed it, they often manipulated or ‘improved’ upon reality in order to meet the expectations of their status-conscious clientele or create a more dynamic composition,” says Peter Björn Kerber, assistant curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“While artists cultivated the impression that they were faithful chroniclers capturing an event on canvas just as they had witnessed it, they often manipulated or ‘improved’ upon reality in order to meet the expectations of their status-conscious clientele or create a more dynamic composition” — Peter Björn Kerber, assistant curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Marjorie E. Wieseman, the CMA’s curator of European paintings and sculpture, 1500–1800, and chair of European art from classical antiquity to 1800, discusses a few paintings in the exhibition that explore this timely (and timeless) topic:

The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1771. Pierre-Jacques Volaire (French, 1729–1799). Oil on canvas; 116.8 × 242.9 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1978.426. Image: The Art Institute of Chicago / Bridgeman Images

Volaire’s inscription on his painting of the eruption of Vesuvius indicates that he was there. As a result, this depiction is an exact record of the event, but were there really elegant gentlemen and a dog standing so close to the lava flow? Clearly, Volaire both added and arranged elements to create a picturesque composition.

The Eruption of Vesuvius (detail), 1771. Pierre-Jacques Volaire (French, 1729–1799). Oil on canvas; 116.8 × 242.9 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1978.426. Image: The Art Institute of Chicago / Bridgeman Images

In some canal views of Venice, artists narrowed the width of a canal to make the action seem more dramatic, or they altered the angle of a canal to create a wider view. For example, in Michele Marieschi’s The Rialto Bridge with the Festive Entry of the Patriarch Antonio Correr, the artist bends the Grand Canal into a sharper angle to include simultaneous views in both directions (like a wide-angle camera view without the distortion).

The Rialto Bridge with the Festive Entry of the Patriarch Antonio Correr, 1735. Michele Marieschi (Italian, 1696–1743). Oil on canvas; 163.3 × 252.5 × 13.4 cm. Osterley Park, National Trust, 771297. Photo: National Trust Photo Library / Art Resource, NY
Image via Google Maps.

There are also depictions of the same event — the departure of the Bucintoro from the Molo on Ascension Day in Venice — by Luca Carlevarijs (1710) and Canaletto (c. 1745) that completely differ in mood and effect. This shows how subjective an artist’s interpretation of an event can be.

The Bucintoro Departing from Molo, 1710. Luca Carlevarijs (Italian, 1663–1730). Oil on canvas; 134.8 × 259.4 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 86.PA.600
The Bucintoro at the Molo on Ascension Day, about 1745. Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) (Italian, 1697–1768). Oil on canvas; 115 × 163 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The William L. Elkins Collection, E1924–3–48. Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

That said, do these works truly depict fake news?
 
“I think that’s open to debate,” Wieseman says. “To the best of our knowledge, the paintings do not completely misrepresent the event; they merely present it in the best and most attractive manner. Every artist claims ‘artistic license’ to one degree or another, even photographers.”

Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe is on view at the CMA through Sunday, May 20. Purchase tickets here.


#EyewitnessCMA Social Media Campaign

See history as it happened, capture history as it happens with #EyewitnessCMA.

Eyewitness Views is your chance to time travel to the most significant events of 18th-century Europe. Take inspiration from the special exhibition and use #EyewitnessCMA to share your eyewitness views of CLE events, festivals, and happenings! Cleveland has fantastic events like Brite Winter (Sat, 2/24), which takes place on the West Bank of the Flats in an area that looks a lot like the Rialto Bridge featured in this painting (image two is #brite18). Eyewitness Views is here for a limited time and opens Sun, 2/25.