Italian Painter

Born: October 28, 1697
Venice, Italy
Died: April 19, 1768
Venice, Italy
He paints with such accuracy and cunning that the eye is deceived and truly believes it is the real thing it sees, not a painting.
G.P. Guarienti

Summary of Canaletto

Canaletto was a sophisticated and prolific Italian painter known primarily for his vivid topographies of Venice, Rome, and London. Much more than a formulaic guildsman, there is a unique quality to his work which can be attributed to the fact that he was able to seamlessly blend real and imagined words to beguiling effect. His 'tourist" paintings, which were much sought after by the traveling upper-classes, were meticulously prepared, with his chief concern being for compositional harmony rather than dogmatic geographic accuracy. In his later career Canaletto augmented his painting output with an important series of "real-time" etchings of such fine quality that they influenced the next generation of English landscapists. Having further cemented his early reputation while working in England, Canaletto returned to Venice where he finished his career painting more intimate cityscapes in the light and frivolous Rococo style.


Progression of Art


Veduta ideata with Roman Ruins

Direct precedents for Canaletto's painting can be found in the work of the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain who made his name in Italy during the precedding (seventeenth) century. Claude is credited with turning the landscape genre into the more respectable "history painting", and, like Claude, Canaletto would dramatize his historical tableaus with a smattering of small figures. Here, ancient Roman monuments in various states of deterioration dominate the foreground of Canaletto's painting. A few stray figures are depicted in the painting including a figure sitting at the base of a building on the left side of the canvas and two men near a small pool in the center foreground. In the background, along the Tiber River, additional architectural structures are visible including the famous Trajan's Column and a barely visible dome from the Castel Sant'Angelo.

This painting is an early example of the subject matter Canaletto turned towards after deciding to give up on theatrical sceneries, though one can see those influences here in this impressive topography. Canaletto's superb mastery of perspective, a technique fostered under the Renaissance tradition of his native Italy, is also in abundant evidence. Indeed, art historian Bożena Anna Kowalczyk attributed his mastery of perspective to his time spent working in the theater: "the precise perspective ad angolo [angled], in keeping with the rules of theatrical scenography [...] governs the arrangement of the buildings in the space, as well as that of the cistern in the foreground." While Canaletto's later paintings and drawings would favor more naturalistic renderings of cityscapes, here we still see a clear foreshadowing of the vedute style for which he would become most well-known.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Architectural Capriccio

A series of architectural structures dominate the canvas of Canaletto's Architectural Capriccio. The largest building, occupying the right foreground of the canvas, features an arch under which one man sits while another two figures are seen passing through. The "Capriccio" of the painting's title acts to inform the spectator that the painting is in fact a fantasy; albeit a fantasy grounded in reality.

Completed early in his career, and while still in Rome, this work is an example of the veduta ideata style in which real and imaginary combinations are used to heighten the picture's sense of drama. Canaletto had used real architectural structures as the template for his painting, but, in a gesture of artistic licence, he combined the Roman architectural elements of his immediate surroundings with those belonging to his native Venice. Once more, the theatrical element of the painting reflects Canaletto's early training, yet the vivid attention to fine detail in which he renders the landscape sets the bar for the rest of his career. Indeed, in her analysis of the painting, Kowalczyk suggested that Canaletto had established "a discourse on classical and Renaissance Venetian architecture that would guide his future creations." Kowalczyk also speculated that the figure seated under the arch in the left foreground is a depiction of Canaletto himself, here engaged "in the act of measuring the buildings with a pencil." Whether or not the figure was autobiographical, the idea that the artist could be charged with the responsibility of capturing a memory of the city was an obligation that Canaletto took to heart and established his position within the pantheon of Italian masters.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


The Rialto Bridge from the North

This Canaletto painting features an iconic view of Venice: that of the Rialto Bridge positioned between city buildings on either side of the Grand Canal. While the bridge is visible in the left background of the canvas, the viewer's eye must first travel along the water on which floats many gondolas. The subject of the Grand Canal was a favorite for Canaletto who took up the theme shortly after his return from Rome in 1720. This particular example is one of twelve compositions of the canal observed from the same vantage point. The painting was also one of several Canaletto's acquired (through his agent Joseph Smith) by King George III of England.

Characteristic of his style, the view served almost as a facsimile of modern Venice. Here, for instance, one can see key architectural features including the Rialto Bridge, the edge of the Palazzo Civran on the left bank of the canal, the uppermost section of the San Bartolomeo's Bell Tower in the background, and the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi on the right bank. Despite his commitment to the rules of verisimilitude, however, Canaletto was not above embellishing his work through subtle geographic modifications. According to a catalogue entry from The Royal Collection Trust, "there is no one viewpoint that encompasses all these crowded buildings, and Canaletto has opened out the topography to give an impression of space. The bridge has been moved to the left to show most of its width; the short, sunlit façade of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi actually lies almost flush with the front of the Fabbriche, and Canaletto turned the Palazzo through almost 90° to create a square on the bank of the canal." By taking such liberties with "the truth," Canaletto had created a more dramatic and aesthetically pleasing cityscape.

Oil on canvas - The Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom

c. 1730

The Clock Tower in the Piazza San Marco, Venice

As a detailed realization of early 18th century Venice, Canaletto's painting features the famous clock tower in the city's Piazza San Marco. Venetians and tourists are positioned throughout the square, going about their daily business under a crystal-clear blue and white sky. The clock tower appeared often in Canaletto's vedute work, but this painting is the only one that, by making the Clock Tower the focal point of his composition, celebrates this famous monument to the architecture of the early Venetian Renaissance.

Canaletto's paintings of Venice were in high demand amongst upper class tourists who, usually while embarked on the so-called "Grand Tour" of Europe, sought romanticized mementos of their time in the Italian city. While it is true that Canaletto often used a camera obscura as a means of achieving the most authentic and detailed architectural representations, this did not stop him from embellishing his cityscapes to the ends of geometric harmony and added drama. Indeed, according to the gallery label for this painting (held at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) "Canaletto has compressed the actual view in depth, because in reality the façade of Saint Mark's is located further back, nearer to the Clock Tower." This creative decision, coupled, for instance, with the red sheet draped over the balcony of an adjacent building, bring his painting an added allure and narrative subtlety.

Oil on canvas - Collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri


Chelsea from the Thames at Battersea Reach, London

In this waterscape, the Thames River dominates the canvas. A small swath of land is visible in the foreground with figures about to push two small rowboats onto the water; while in the background is a view of various Chelsea homes and buildings.

Canaletto applied his painting approach to the English landscape during a nine year stay in the country. While in England, he created many popular works that helped grow his reputation in Northern Europe. This painting was originally larger in scale and also featured views of the Chelsea College (according to Kowalczyk, "the painting was cut in two [after the artist's death]")

The Thames River was a frequent subject for Canaletto. But while this painting shows all his characteristic traits - namely: strong command of perspective, scrupulous attention to detail, and a highly realistic rendering of his material - of all the paintings of this theme, this work is one of the most interesting due to the events surrounding its creation. Canaletto painted the work upon returning to England after a brief return to Venice. However, once back in London he found that, not for the first time, he was the subject of rumors that an imposter (his nephew) was creating artworks in his name. To stave off damage to his artistic integrity, Canaletto paid for an advertisement inviting the general public to come to his studio and observe him as he painted this river scene.

Oil on canvas - Collection of The Lothian Collection (National Trust), Blickling Hall, England


Warwick Castle: The East Front

The subject of this drawing is Warwick Castle, a medieval structure located in Warwickshire, England. The work features not only the castle but a pastoral landscape in which various well-dressed figures are engaged in leisurely strolls and conversations.

Warwick Castle was a source of interest for Canaletto once he had left the confines of London and ventured further out into the English countryside. In addition to five paintings of the castle, he created several drawings of the structure. His drawings, which increased in number, were more than additions to his preparatory pieces (for his paintings) and reflected a new market in England for works produced in real time (rather than finished later in the studio).

In his book "Canaletto at Warwick", David Buttery describes how the Earl of Warwick, Lord Brooke, had undertaken a project to improve Warwick Castle and "the newly landscaped grounds designed by 'Capability' Brown". The commission - including five oil paintings and three pen and ink drawings - is thought to have been funded by Lord Brooke for his London residence and in order "to allow him to present the newly improved Castle to his London associates." In support of his research, Buttery was able to present a receipt for one of the earlier paintings - written and signed by the Canaletto himself - and "hidden" hitherto in Warwick's County Record Office. It reads thus:

As of 28 July 1748 London Received I Giovanni Antonio Canal from the doer [agent] of the most excellent My Lord Brooke, ten guineas, and this for the price of a small painting by me painted, with the view of the castle of the said My Lord.

Speaking of the Warwick sketches, meanwhile, Kowalczyk noted, "during the years in England, drawing rose to a new role" and more finely-honed drawings "properly finished with wash, began to appear." Indeed, Canaletto's reputation as a supreme draughtsman was enhanced by these pieces which were in very high demand amongst collectors. In her analysis of this picture, Kowalczyk picked out the "slightly wavy strokes in the rendering of the castle structures [...] the fluid rounded strokes of the figures [that] contribute, together with the impressionistic application of the wash in the shadows cast by the trees, to the creation of a vibrant luminosity and atmospheric effect." As Kowalczyk further observed, these were "effects that would influence the School of English Landscape Painters, beginning with Paul Sandby."

Pen and brown ink with gray wash - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York


The Piazza San Marco, looking East from the Colonnade of the Procuratie Nuove, Venice

Rather than his familiar expansive horizontal cityscapes, a number of Canaletto's late works were vertical and smaller in scale. In this painting, Canaletto provides only an intimate glimpse of the Piazza San Marco by focusing on one side of the square where aspects of a row of buildings dominate the left side of the canvas. In the background we see recognizable Venetian structures including the San Marco Bell Tower but the focal point of the painting is a group of three well-dressed men, two seated against a column with a dog at their feet, and a third standing nearby wearing a long green cloak. They are patrons of the first self-styled Italian café (which was founded in 1720).

This work provides an important example of the paintings Canaletto created immediately after his return home following his extended stay in England. The work represents a shift in artistic style and one can see a willingness to embrace the Rococo style. There is therefore a softening of brushstrokes and a lightening of the intensity of detail as well as a picture scenario that is more focused on leisure and frivolity. For Kowalczyk this work's importance to Canaletto's late career cannot be understated: "in terms of the scene depicted and the finely crafted execution, with the points of light applied with full brush strokes and scattered over the figures and the decorative parts of the architecture, this painting is one of the most refined and joyous examples of Rococo Venetian art."

Oil on canvas - Collection of The National Gallery, London

Biography of Canaletto

Childhood and Education

Only limited biographical details exist about Giovanni Antonio Canal, the artist better known as Canaletto. His parents, mother Artemisia Barbieri, and father Bernardo Canal (the mononym Canaletto simple means "Little Canal"), were members of an upper-class Venetian society which, according to art historian and Canaletto specialist, Bożena Anna Kowalczyk, included "noblemen and attadini originarii ('original citizens')." Canaletto was in fact proud of his ancestry and would later boast of depicting "the Canal family's coat of arms (a silver shield surmounted by a blue roe) into the works he was especially proud of." Indeed, in seeking to authenticate an unsigned and undated painting gifted to the University of Aberdeen (known only as "Ruins of the Temple") Art Historian John Gash, and leading Canaletto scholar Charles Beddington, were able to authenticate the painting of Roman ruins by this means. As Gash was able to explain, "Occasionally, Canaletto did sign his works but not in this example. However in the middle of the painting is a ruin which displays the coat of arms of his family. It's unlikely someone else would include that, so it acts as a kind of surrogate signature."

Bernardo Canal was a well-respected theatrical scene painter and, as expected, Canaletto and his elder brother, Christoforo, joined their father as his apprentices. Having already helped to design and create the sets for operas by Fortunato Chelleri, Giovanni Porto, and Antonio Vivaldi, the 21-year-old Canaletto travelled with his father to Rome in 1718 to work on set designs for a series of Alessandro Scarlatti operas. It proved to be a turning point in Canaletto's life since it was on this excursion that he took the decision to abandon theatrical design altogether.

According to early critic and associate of the artist, Antonio Maria Zanetti, Canaletto had grown tired of the theater and "bored with the indiscretion of the dramatic poets." He transferred his immediate artistic attentions onto the ancient Roman monuments and modern buildings that surrounded him. These formative architectural drawings became his first independent subjects and the realistic detail in which he rendered them was to form the basis for his mature style.

Following his return to Venice in 1719 Canaletto, having been inspired by the Roman vedutista (an Italian tradition of art involving often large, highly detailed paintings of cityscapes) Giovanni Paolo Pannini, started painting the daily life of the city and its people. These were the first of the topographical paintings (veduta) on which he built his reputation. Once resettled in Venice, Canaletto had studied under a cityscape painter, Luca Carlevaris. Soon surpassing his master's modest talents, Canaletto produced his first known signed work, an Architectural Capriccio dated 1723. Two years later, the painter Alessandro Marchesini, who was also the buyer for the Lucchese art collector Stefano Conti, had arrived in Venice with the aim of purchasing two Venetian views by Carlevaris but was directed instead towards Canaletto who, as his agent informed him, was "like Carlevaris" but with "the sun shining."

Canaletto's early artworks were often painted in natural surroundings when the convention of the day dictated that paintings be completed in the studio. It is true that some of the details in his paintings were added in a studio - for instance, his tendency to include distant figures rendered as blobs of color - but his paintings became admired for their almost scientific accuracy and Canaletto became known as a master vedutista in his own right.

Mature Period

As his reputation started to build, Canaletto came to the attention of three influential agents who helped promote and advance his artistic talent throughout Europe. The first of these was the Irishman Owen McSwiny who had settled in Venice and who arranged Canaletto's first overseas commission for the collection of Charles Lennox the Second Duke of Richmond in 1721. During the 1730s, another agent, Anton Maria Zanetti the Younger - who said of Canaletto that he was "so distinctive a painter of views that few amongst past artists, and none amongst the favourites, come close to him in intelligence, taste and truth" - was instrumental in furthering Canaletto's career by adding several paintings to the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, Joseph Wenzel. Soon thereafter, Canaletto made the acquaintance of the Englishman Joseph Smith who became his most important agent.

Long before postcards or photographs existed, Canaletto's skill at capturing the feel and image of Venice brought him popularity among tourists, many of whom purchased his paintings as mementos of their travels. According to Kowalczyk, moreover, the demand for works by Canaletto overseas was due in part to "the rational taste of British and Irish collectors making their Grand Tour - young aristocrats on an educational journey through Europe - [which] led them to search for works featuring clear, scientific prospective developments." Canaletto had by now all but perfected this skill by using a camera obscura to prepare his paintings and etchings. The camera obscura, in which a box allowed light to be admitted through a tiny pinhole onto an angled mirror, created an exact reflected image onto a surface from which one could trace. According to historian Roberto Longhi his use of this device meant that almost "miraculously, his art became poetry."

Canaletto's career was not without its controversy, however. Canaletto had trained his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (trained a little too well perhaps). Bernardo would become his uncle's assistant for many years before branching out as an artist in his own right. The pair were close, even travelled together in 1742 on a trip to Dolo and Padua where they drew inspiration from nature for future paintings. However, the influence of Canaletto was so great on Bellotto that at times it would prove difficult to differentiate between the two artists' work. Once Bellotto struck out on his own, he tried to capitalize and profit from his uncle's name, often giving the false impression that he was in fact Canaletto. Bellotto even put his great mentor's name to his own art and he was particularly successful at this in countries like Poland and Germany where his uncle was not active.

Canaletto arrived in London in 1746. There were, according to The Guardian's arts correspondent Mark Brown, two key reasons for his move. First was the war in Europe which meant that it was no longer feasible for wealthy British travellers to undertake their Grand Tours: "when the money stopped coming to Canaletto, he decided to go to the money". Second, there was (following peace with France) a "new confidence and an economic boom" in Britain. As Brown put it, "There was new eclectic architecture springing up; culturally Britain was rediscovering and falling in love with Shakespeare; it was the time of Rule Britannia. A wide-eyed Canaletto was swept up by how vibrant and exciting Britain was and virtually everything he painted was new or about to be new."

Canaletto would spend next nine years in Britain (notwithstanding a brief return to Venice in 1750 in order to settle some business affairs). Unfortunately, the controversy around the authenticity of his paintings followed him and rumors began to circulate that the paintings sold on Canaletto's name might not be authentic. In order to disprove the allegations Canaletto published two invitations - first in 1749, and again in 1751 - in a London newspaper (the Daily Advertiser) for the public to join him in his studio where they might witness for themselves that he was living and working in England; and creating genuine works.

Late Period

In 1755 Canaletto returned to Venice where he would live out the rest of his life. It was here, in 1763, that (and after an earlier rejection) he was elected as a member of the Venetian Academy of Painting and Sculpture and appointed as prior of the College of Painting. Proud of the fact that he was able to continue to paint in the last years of his life, he once boasted of this by inscribing a work from 1766 with the words, "at 68 years of age without Glasses." However, despite his widespread popularity and commercial successes, not to mention a career that produced more than 1000 paintings and drawings, Canaletto suffered financially in his later years, spending the end of his life in near poverty. When he died from a bladder inflammation in 1768, he left behind just a few possessions which, according to historian J.G. Links, included a "modest investment in [a] property which he had since 1750, and 28 unsold pictures."

The Legacy of Canaletto

Canaletto has left a somewhat mixed legacy. Highly in demand during his lifetime, his topographies provided inspiration for the next generation of cityscapists and landscapists who advanced his fastidious style of painting. His followers included his duplicitous nephew Bernardo Bellotto, but also artists including the Italians Giovanni Battista Cimaroli, Antonio Diziani, Francesco Guardi, and Francesco Zuccarelli, and a generation of English landscape painters including Paul Sandby. Indeed, Canaletto elevated the vedute painting style and should be considered a trailblazer in his application of the use of the camera obscura and his approach of rendering his views in real time and space. While painting on location became the very foundation for the development of one of the earliest modern art movements, Impressionism, it was close to unheard of in Canaletto's time.

However, and while his work has been subject to some revision, the very fact that his work was most popular among tourists highlights the stuffy tone of "official" art histories which have tended to exclude his work from its canons. It was a conundrum addressed by J.G. Links who noted that while Canaletto had been "manifestly a great artist [and] recognized as such by some of the best-informed connoisseurs of his time," the artist's "immense success had been due to this appeal to the most unsophisticated taste," namely the tourist.

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Cite article
Correct article