The National Gallery is bringing together five views of the fortress of Königstein for the first time in 250 years. These were painted by Bernardo Bellotto (1722–1780) at the peak of his career when he was a court painter in Dresden.

    Once overlooked in favour of his uncle and master Canaletto, with whom he trained in Venice, Bellotto is today recognised as one of the most distinctive artistic personalities of his age. Born in Venice in 1722, he had a precocious talent and was accepted into the “Fraglia dei Pittori” at 16. Bellotto took the tradition of view painting in an entirely new direction, including the use of a camera obscura – the precursor of modern cameras – that helped him plan his compositions in minute detail.

    This stunning exhibition shines a spotlight on the National Gallery’s 2017 acquisition, The Fortress of Königstein from the North (1756-8) – the first 18th-century German view to enter the Collection. August III (1696–1763), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, commissioned these five paintings in about 1756 as part of a larger series of thirty views of Dresden and its surrounding.

    Bernardo Bellotto, The Fortress of Königstein from the North, 1756–8

    Bellotto received payment for the pictures in 1758 and, although completed, they were almost certainly never delivered to the elector due to the escalation of the Seven Years’ War. All five views were probably imported into Britain during Bellotto’s own lifetime and, until 1991, were to be found in three different British collections. Today, The Fortress of Königstein from the South is in The Derby Collection, Knowsley Hall, Merseyside (the collection from which the National Gallery’s own view of the fortress also came), Fortress of Königstein from the North-West is in The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C, and both The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Brunnenhaus and The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Magdalenenburg are in Manchester Art Gallery.

    The fortress of Königstein, which is situated approximately 25 miles south-east of Dresden, appears largely unchanged from Bellotto’s own time. Stand back and you can see the sharp, angular forms of the fortress but look closely and you can make out the crumbling stone walls, tiny soldiers on the ramparts and women hanging washing in the courtyard. Applying what he had learnt in Venice to highly original panoramic depictions of northern Europe.

    As you move from one monumental view to the next, you will feel the sensation of walking around the fortress itself and will be able to appreciate the contrast between the fortress’s forbidding walls and the pastoral calm of its surroundings.

    The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Magdalenenburg, 1756-8.

    In the 1740s he travelled extensively around the Italian peninsula, producing views of various cities. He was called to Dresden in 1747, and the subsequent year was appointed Court Painter to Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, receiving the highest annual salary ever paid by that court to an artist. Following the escalation of the Seven Years’ War, Bellotto worked at the courts of Vienna and Munich, before returning to Dresden.

    He spent the last 13 years of his life in Warsaw. Although 18th-century contemporaries appear to have had some difficulty distinguishing between Bellotto’s Venetian views and those of his uncle, Cannaletto, there are marked differences between their styles. Bellotto tended towards a silvery light, a cooler palette, and a greater sense of monumentality.

    One of the most distinctive elements of Bellotto’s pictures is his use of impasto, particularly in the sky, where broad brushstrokes denote clouds and changing light on the horizon. Today, Bellotto is best known for his views of Northern Europe, and the views he painted for Augustus III during the first Dresden period mark the height of his achievements. Such was Bellotto’s precision that his late views of Warsaw played a crucial role in that city’s reconstruction after the Second World War.


    22 July – 31 October 2021

    Words: Lavinia Dickson-Robinson

    Opening picture: The Fortress of Königstein from the North-West, 1756-8. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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