Biography of Venetian Architectural/Topographical View-Painter.

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A detail from:
The Grand Canal and the
Church of the Salute (1730)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)


Early Career
Architectural Painting
Moves to London
Reputation and Legacy

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One of the best landscape artists of the eighteenth century, and an important representative of Venetian painting, Canaletto is famous for his landscapes (vedute), of Venice, with its Italianate Piazzas, canals and lagoon. Indeed, he is the most celebrated of all view-painters (vedutisti) of the city, and one of the pioneers of two-point linear perspective. His meticulous architectural landscape painting influenced a number of artists in Italy and elsewhere: his nephew Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80) took his style to central Europe - notably Dresden and Warsaw - while his followers and adherents in England included the marine and topographical painter Samuel Scott (1702-72) and the landscape and marine artist William Marlowe (1740-1813). He was also an expert in drawing and printmaking, and produced a range of popular etchings. Canaletto's reputation as one of the finest rococo period artists has remained high ever since his death, and his famous landscape paintings of Venetian lagoons, canals and pageantry continue to command high prices at auction (eg. View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto).



Early Career

Canaletto was born in Venice, the son of the painter Bernardo Canal - a noted theatrical scene painter - hence his nickname Canaletto ("little Canal"), and Artemisia Barbieri. He learned painting in the studio of his father and his older brother, starting out as a painter of theatrical backdrops. However, his interest was by no means limited to this commercial art and, during a visit to Rome 1719-20, he was influenced by the work of the view-painter (vedutista) Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1691-1765), who specialised in topographical views of the city, notably ruins, as well as predecessors like Gentile Bellini (1429-1507). Returning to Venice, Canaletto abandoned his theatrical art and determined to devote himself to topographical painting al naturale (from nature).

Architectural/Topographical Painting

By 1723 he was painting intimate views of unremarkable sites in Venice, marked by strong contrasts of light and shade and free handling (his first work in this genre is the 1723 picture Architectural Capriccio), a phase which culminated in his early masterpiece Stone Mason's Yard (c.1730, National Gallery, London,). However, perhaps due to the influence of the older view-painter Luca Carlevaris (1664-1730), under whom Canaletto is said to have studied, he soon turned to depicting grander locations showing the public face of Venice and its ceremonial festivities, which were both topographically accurate and marked by a smoother, more precise handling - characteristics that reoccur in much of his later work. Much of Canaletto's early oil painting was painted 'from nature', in contrast to the normal practice among many Italian painters who worked almost entirely in the studio - a practice Canaletto was to revert to in later years.

Canaletto's best works were painted in the late 1720s and 1730s. During this time his stunning use of perspective and composition (aided by a camera obscura), flair for colour in painting, and freshness of touch, made him one of the very few painters who has been able to capture the unique light and feel of Venice, along with its pageantry and history.


During the 1730s and early 1740s, the main customers for his pictures were English collectors, such as the banker and art collector Joseph Smith, who was later appointed British Consul in Venice in 1744, as well as rich tourists visiting Venice during their Grand Tour of Europe. During the 1740s, under Smith's influence, Canaletto began to extend his repertoire to include subjects from the Venetian mainland and from Rome. He also paid closer attention to graphic art, executing a remarkable series of etchings, as well as numerous pen and ink drawings, and ink and wash paintings.

Moves to London

Unfortunately, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8) put an end to most of Canaletto's English trade, and in 1746 he moved to England to be closer to his market, allegedly on the advice of the Rococo decorative painter and portraitist Jacopo Amigoni (1685-1752), who had spent a profitable decade in England during the 1730s.

To begin with, Canaletto's view paintings of London and of various country houses proved very successful, but within a few years the freshness of his work began to decline and his compositions became increasingly lifeless and mannered, to such an extent that rumours abounded that he was not in fact the famous Italian Canaletto but an impostor. Undoubtedly part of the reason for this deterioration was the expectation among his patrons that he paint London in the same style as he had painted Venice, an expectation which - given the totally different light, topography and architectural conditions - was both unrealistic and demotivating. Even so, his topographical approach did influence the early members of the English school of landscape painting.

Reputation and Legacy

In 1755 he returned to Venice, was duly elected to the Venetian Academy of Fine Art, and remained active in the city until his death in 1768. His pupils included his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, Francesco Guardi, Michele Marieschi, and Giuseppe Moretti. Although he never quite recovered his popularity during his lifetime, his reputation has endured down to the present. His magnificent views of Venice, painted in his easily recognizable style, have consistently fetched high prices: in the 18th century Catherine the Great and other European monarchs competed with each other to acquire his top paintings, while in July 2005 at Sotheby's London his View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto sold for a massive £18.6 million - a world record for the artist.

Paintings by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto can be seen in many of the world's best art museums, like the Venice Academy Gallery, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister Dresden, and the National Gallery London. However, the largest single holding of Canalettos is in the British Royal Collection, due to the purchase of Joseph Smith's art collection by King George III, in 1762.

• For profiles of the major art movements, see: History of Art.
• For a chronological list of dates, see: Timeline: History of Art.
• For more about famous Rococo painters, see: Homepage.

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