Biography of Canaletto
Childhood and Early Training
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.
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.
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.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 13 Feb 2019. Updated and modified regularly