The Italian painter Canaletto was a talented and prolific artist, best known for his vivid topographies of Venice, Rome, and London.
The Italian painter Canaletto was a talented and prolific artist, best known for his vivid topographies of Venice, Rome, and London. His writing has a distinctive quality that sets it apart from the formulaic guildsmen because he could deftly combine real and made-up words to a seductive effect. His "tourist" paintings, highly prized by the traveling upper classes, were painstakingly created, with compositional harmony taking precedence over dogmatic geographic accuracy as his primary concern. Later in his career, Canaletto added a significant series of "real-time" etchings to his body of work of such high caliber that they impacted the subsequent generation of English landscapists. Working in England helped Canaletto solidify his early reputation. After returning to Venice, he painted more intimate cityscapes in the fanciful and light-hearted Rococo style to complete his career. (The Art Story, n.d.)
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Very little is known about Giovanni Antonio Canal, the artist better known by his pen name Canaletto. Art historian and Canaletto expert Boena Anna Kowalczyk claim that his parents, Bernardo Canal and Artemisia Barbieri, belonged to a wealthy class of Venetian society that included "noblemen and attadini originarii ('original citizens')." Canaletto took great pride in his heritage and would later boast that he incorporated "the Canal family's coat of arms (a silver shield topped by a blue roe) into the works he was especially proud of."
Canaletto and his older brother Christoforo joined their father as apprentices because Bernardo Canal was a well-known theatrical scene painter. The 21-year-old Canaletto traveled to Rome with his father in 1718 to work on set designs for several Alessandro Scarlatti operas. He had previously assisted in the set design and construction for operas by Fortunato Chelleri, Giovanni Porto, and Antonio Vivaldi. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in Canaletto's life because, during this trip, he decided to give up on theatrical design completely. According to an early critic and associate of the artist, Antonio Maria Zanetti, Canaletto had grown weary of the theater and "bored with the indiscretion of the dramatic poets."
He turned his immediate artistic focus to the contemporary and historic Roman structures around him. These early architectural sketches served as his first independent subjects, and the realistic detail he captured in them served as the foundation for his developed style. Inspired by Giovanni Paolo Pannini's Roman vedutista (an Italian tradition of art characterized by frequently large, intricate paintings of cityscapes), Canaletto began capturing the city's and its residents' daily lives after his return to Venice in 1719. These were the initial examples of the topographical paintings (veduta) that would later become his signature style.
After moving to Venice, Canaletto studied under Luca Carlevaris, a painter of urban scenes. A 1723 Architectural Capriccio by Canaletto is his first known signed piece, quickly outpacing his master's modest abilities. Two years later, the painter Alessandro Marchesini—also Stefano Conti's buyer—arrived in Venice intending to purchase two Carlevaris paintings of Venice. However, he was told to look at Canaletto, who, according to his agent, was "like Carlevaris" but with "the sun shining." When it was customary for paintings to be finished in the studio at the time, Canaletto frequently painted his early works outdoors. Canaletto gained notoriety as a master vedutista for his paintings' near-scientific accuracy. (The Art Story, n.d.)
Canaletto devoted much of the 1730s to producing views of Venice for use as souvenirs for foreigners. He was under so much pressure that he ultimately had to turn to engravings by other artists and drawings rather than working primarily from nature. He also invented the camera ottica, a tool that projected an image of a view onto a ground-glass screen so that it could be used as the basis for a drawing or painting. Finally, he created a mechanical method in which figures and architecture were added to the scene using a deft formula that involved rulers and compasses.
There is no proof that Canaletto was the director of a sizable studio, even though he produced many views of Venice during his lifetime. No real competitors existed for Canaletto. Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto's nephew, was not yet a fully developed painter, and Michele Marieschi was a follower rather than a rival. Luca Carlevaris, who may have served as his initial inspiration in deciding to create topographical pictures for a predominantly foreign audience, had been expelled from the field. This lack of competitors made dealing with Canaletto more challenging.
As early as 1727, Canaletto's patron and English operatic figure, Owen Mac Swinney, penned the following: "The man is irrational and constantly changes his prices, so anyone interested in purchasing one of his works mustn't appear overly attached to it, or they risk receiving a worse deal on both the price and the painting itself."
The War of the Austrian Succession broke out in 1740, drastically reducing the number of tourists visiting Venice, which harmed Canaletto's commissions. An old friend who later became the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, stepped forward at this point. Smith appears to have encouraged Canaletto to broaden his subject matter to include Roman monuments and the region of Padua and the Brenta River as the demand for standardized views of Venice declined. Pictures with more or less recognizable elements rearranged (capriccio) and pictures with nearly entirely fantastical architectural and scenic elements (veduta ideata) started to take on a more prominent role in Canaletto's work at this point.
Canaletto also produced a series of 30 etchings between 1741 and 1744 that were extraordinarily sensitive and skillful, demonstrating a command of perspective and luminosity. As the tourists dwindled, Canaletto benefited from his widespread fame. Despite the elector of Saxony's invitation to Dresden, he traveled to England in 1746, where he was received with open arms, and stayed there until 1755. In English views, he focused primarily on London. Although England's environment, architecture, and topography were very different from those in Venice, Canaletto still created several works that had a significant freshness and impact. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.)
In the year 1755, Canaletto returned to Venice, where he spent most of his days. The artist was elected as a member of the Venetian Academy of Painting and Sculpture and appointed as a prior of the College of Painting here in 1763 (following an earlier rejection).
Canaletto endured financial hardship in his later years, dying in a state of near poverty despite his widespread popularity, commercial success, and career output of more than 1,000 paintings and drawings. His only remaining possessions were a "modest investment in a property which he had since 1750, and 28 unsold pictures," according to historian J.G. Links, when he passed away in 1768 from bladder inflammation. (The Art Story, n.d.)
The Art Story. (n.d.). www.theartstory.org. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://www.theartstory.org/artist/canaletto/
Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). www.britannica.com. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Canaletto