Saxon Switzerland – the end of Germany between Dresden and the Czech border – has no shortage of craggy castles over dizzying precipices, but Königstein is the most impressive. Rising 800 feet above the Elbe, it dominates the landscape for miles around, which is why, in 1756, Frederick Augustus II, elector of Saxony and one of the most powerful rulers Europe, commissioned the greatest painter of his time to record his splendor for everyone to see.
It took Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780) two years and five canvases, each a staggering eight feet wide, to capture the medieval fortress to his satisfaction. An atmosphere both breathtaking and precise enough to provoke the sweat of the eyeballs, they will be exhibited tomorrow at the National Gallery, reunited for the first time since 1758, when, as Bellotto was applying his final touch, Prussian soldiers besieged Dresden.
What exactly happened to the paintings afterwards has never been established, although two of them were auctioned off in London as early as 1778. Perhaps the Prussians took them all; maybe Bellotto rolled his favorite and brought it with him when he fled to Vienna, to sell it separately. He would have needed the money. “Königstein of the North” entered the National Gallery’s collection in 2017 after a campaign to save the painting from export – the current exhibition is in part a celebration of that achievement. For the rest: two belong to the Manchester Art Gallery (acquired in the 1980s), one to the National Gallery in Washington (in 1991), the fifth to the Earl and Countess of Derby (in 1850).
Quite a story, isn’t it? And yet the revelation of this exhibition is indeed Bellotto. He was from Venice, where he had learned the art of sight painting under his uncle, Giovanni Antonio Canal – the artist we know in Britain as “Canaletto”, although if you pronounce that name east of the Rhine everyone will think you mean Bellotto, who at 16 was so accomplished that their job was often confused.
All this only makes sense when one is standing in front of the paintings, which are stupendous, and presented here in a kind of pentagon, so that one is literally surrounded on all sides by the fortress. Close your eyes a bit and you could take a tour of the site itself.