Getty Offers ‘Eyewitness Views’ of European Events and Lure of Italy


Back in the centuries before 24-hour news and social media channels existed, or a camera was in everyone’s pocket or purse, how did people see depictions of events? Besides written accounts, painters visually commemorated many historical occasions that would make the nightly news today. A new groundbreaking exhibit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles looks at artists’ “Eyewitness Views” of European occasions, and a side exhibit displays artworks emphasizing the lure of Italy.

18th Century ‘Photojournalism’

“Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is the first exhibition to focus on the use of paintings to depict actual events. The so-called “view painters” created acutely observed and rendered scenes of newsworthy occasions, such as royal celebrations, sporting contests, civic or religious gatherings, and disasters.

These reportorial works are a hybrid of art and records of contemporary events. They were compared to written accounts of the occurrences to ensure they are largely accurate representations created to give the illusion that the viewer is there as history is made. The staff working on the exhibition looked at source material on the events, such as historical write-ups, letters from eyewitnesses, other available information to see which paintings were fairly accurate representations. In some paintings, the image reflects a constructed, idealized or truncated view. (the painter’s version of Photoshopping the appearance.)

The Getty exhibit features more than 40 works, mostly by Italian artists, from 13 institutions around the world as well as private collectors. They include Bernardo Bellotto, Antonio Canaletto, Francesco Guard, and Giovanni Paolo Panini. The exhibition is organized by the Getty, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. It will travel to the other museums after the Getty tenure.

“’Eyewitness Views’ brings together an incredible array of international loans to tell the fascinating story of how artists captured, and in many ways created, history,” noted Getty director Timothy Potts. “Both in their subject matter of spectacular public occasions, such as papal visits, and in the brilliance of their execution, these colorful panoramic views provide a window into history as well as a testament to the achievements of some of the era’s greatest painters.”

The idea changes the perspective from the buildings, bridges or boats to the specific people or details in the scene depicted, according to Peter Björn Kerber, assistant curator of paintings at the Getty. For example, there is an annual regatta on the Grand Canal that has been depicted through the years by many artists. In 1711, Kind Frederick IV of Denmark participated in one boat. A painting by Luca Carlevarijs (Italian) depicts that year’s race. They know how accurate his painting is and which boat is which from historic records.

Four Sections

The “Eyewitness Views” exhibition features dark blue walls that let paintings stand out dramatically. It is divided into four sections:

  • Memory & Manipulation features historical depictions of one-time occurrences, such as “The Departure of Charles III from Naples to Become King of Spain,” 1759, by Antonio Joli.
  • Civic & Religious Ritual, including annual occurrences, such as feast days or races. If the event is still held today, the exhibit included a photo from a recent year to show how little (or much) things have changed. For example, there is an annual Feast of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, which involves a temporary bridge built across the Grand GettyCanal. The early 1700s painting of the event at the Getty by Johan Richter (Swedish) has a photo of a recent Feast for comparison.
  • Festival & Spectacle containing over-the-top events. For example, Francesco Guardi depicted the 1784 first hot air balloon to soar over Venice in “The Balloon Flight of Count Zambeccari.”
  • Disaster & Destruction artworks show a fire, the eruption of Vesuvius, and other misfortunes. The exhibit includes a work by Bernardo Bellotto commemorating “The Demolition of the Ruins of the Kreuzkirche.” The Kreuzkirche was a church in Dresden that damaged in war that had to be demolished in 1765.

The Lure of Italy

The Getty also opened a small side exhibit this week: “The Lure of Italy: Artists’ Views.” Unlike “Eyewitness Views,” where the focus is the information presented, this exhibit offers straightforward artistic views of Italy. The works capture iconic views, such as crumbling ruins in Rome and waterways in Venice, created by visiting artists who traveled to the area.

The sketches and paintings drawn from the Getty collection include vulnerable works that are rarely shown to avoid light damage, according to Julian Brooks, senior curator and drawing department head. For example, there is a huge 1791 panoramic watercolor, “A View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southwest from the Pizzofalcone towards Capo di Posilippo” by Giovanni Battista Lusieri that contains intricate details throughout like a miniature.

There is also a new Getty acquisition by Francesco Guardi of a Regatta on the Grand Canal, 1778. The calligraphic ink drawing over black chalk, which was a preparatory drawing for a painting, offers a similar landscape to the Carlevarijs and other works in the “Eyewitness Views” exhibit.

The Getty will present the “Eyewitness Views” of European events exhibit and the “Lure of Italy” through July 20. The “Eyewitness Views will be on display in Minneapolis later this year and in Cleveland in 2018.

By Dyanne Weiss

Exhibition visit
Getty: The J. Paul Getty Museum Presents Eyewitness Views: Making History In Eighteenth-Century Europe
Getty: The Lure Of Italy: Artists’ Views

Photo of “The Departure of Charles III from Naples to Become King of Spain, 1759{“ by Antonio Joli (Italian, 1700 – 1777), courtesy of the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and the Getty Center.
Photo of “Charles III Visiting Pope Benedict XIV at the Coffee House of the Palazzo del Quirinale, 1746,” by Giovanni Paolo Panini, (Italian, 1691–1765), courtesy of Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali / Art Resource, NY and the Getty Center.