Son of the theatrical scene painter, Bernardo Canal, he began working with his father with whom he journeyed to Rome in 1719-1720. There, he had the occasion to become acquainted with the works of vedute painters, Giovanni Paolo Pannin and Gaspar Van Wittel, and, through their influence he abandoned theatrical scenery for painting. By 1720 he was back in Venice where he joined the painters’ guild. The four large views that he painted for the Prince of Liechtenstein date from around 1723. In these paintings Canaletto revealed a well-defined artistic personality: he accentuated the contrasts between light and shadow with dramatic effects and favored the more “picturesque” views of Venice. Soon his fame as a vedutista crossed the lagoon: in 1725 a wealthy merchant from Lucca, Stefano Conti ordered two paintings; the Irish impresario Owen McSwiney commissioned him, along with other artists to paint a series of allegorical representations of the tombs of famous English historical figures. In 1726 he sold some vedute to Joseph Smith the future British consul in Venice who would become his main client and dealer. The first edition of Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum was published in 1735. It was a collection of fourteen engravings from Canaletto’s vedute commissioned by Smith. A second, expanded edition was published in 1742. By this time Canaletto’s success was at its peak: he work intensely to satisfy the great demand for his work that came mainly from the English market. He raised the veduta genre to levels of extreme rigor and clarity by eliminating the eighteenth century taste for the anecdotal detail in favor of an objective rendering of reality in keeping with the Enlightenment philosophy, and even developed the use of the camera ottica. In 1746 he moved to England where he lived for about a decade and painted many views of London, the English countryside and several capricci. Upon his return to Venice his output diminished. He was elected to the Venetian Academy 1765 after the presentation of his painting Capriccio, a courtyard and colonnade of an imaginary palace (Venice. Gallery of the Accademia). He dies in 1768.
Canaletto: the works
Capriccio with Classic Ruins
This painting, dateable around 1723 is part of a small group of five capricci from Canaletto’s early years just after he had abandoned the field of theatrical scenery design to dedicate himself to painting. Along with another capriccio that is in a private collection in Switzerland, this painting probably decorated the Giovanelli family villa at Noventa Padovana. In this capriccio, a genre characterized by imaginary architecture often combined with elements drawn from reality, the young Canaletto reflects on the lessons of Marco Ricci, drawing on his thematic motifs and deep, dense colors. Thus he combined ruined arches overlooking a lagoon landscape, the pyramid of Gaius Cestius in Rome and the Palladian basilica in Vicenza.
Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge
When, at the beginning of the third decade Canaletto painted his first scenes of Venice, he was still strongly influenced by the teachings of Marco Ricci. The four large canvases that at end of the eighteenth century belonged to the Prince of Liechtenstein in Vienna are now divided between the Thyssen Collection in Madrid and the Museo del Settecento Veneziano in Ca’Rezzonico. In this view of the Grand Canal we see the burnished tones of Ricci’s style, the figures are small and somewhat generic but depicted in extremely vivacious poses. Drawing on his experience as a theatrical set designer, Canaletto uses two different light sources in the foreground so that the shadows of both Palazzo Balbi on the left and those of the Ca’Mocenigo on the right are projected onto the waters of the canal.
The Grand Canal Looking North..
Success came suddenly to Canaletto and within a few years he was the most highly sought after vedutista in Venice. But his true arrival was occurred when he met Owen McSwiney, an Irishman who went to Venice after his failure as a London theater impresario. Following McSwiney’s advice Canaletto worked with other artists for the Duke of Richmond, on a cycle of paintings of imaginary tombstones dedicated to famous figures in English history. Then, for the same client Canaletto did two small scenes on copper in which he abandoned the dramatic, stark chiaroscuro of his early years in favor of more luminous tones that exalt the details of the scene and its architectural elements.
Piazza San Marco with the Clock Tower
Around the end of the third decade Canaletto radically modified his style. In line with Newton’s innovative scientific-objective criteria, he favored a rational, perspective vision of the vedute which, however, cannot be described as a pre-photographic rendering of reality. In his works Canaletto used several viewpoints at the same time, and adapted reality to his own requirements and poetics. In this canvas the windows on the bell tower are shifted from left to right, the last span of the basilica’s portico is open all the way, and the clock tower is farther to the west than it really is. The painting abounds with tasteful details such as the lazy man lounging in the sun, or the dog happily scratching himself, while in the background the inevitable textile stalls draw the viewer’s gaze to the arch where the Renaissance clock tower rises.
The Entrance of the Grand Canal
By the end of the ‘Twenties, Canaletto was already the most skilled and highly paid painter of vedute in Venice. And thanks to the efforts of Joseph Smith he also acquired wealthy clients across the Channel who were willing to pay any sum for one of his paintings. He soon understood that the public preferred views of a luminous, animated and highly detailed Venice as opposed to the restless renderings of his earlier period. In this veduta of the Grand Canal, Canaletto outlines each architectural detail, and each detail of the vessels, with figures engaged in the most diverse activities. To create realistic perspective he used a special instrument, the camera ottica, that allowed him to study a scene, by framing it with a play of lenses. Canaletto used this device to prepare sketches and drawings that he later developed into paintings in his studio.
The Return of the Bucintoro on the Feast of the Ascension
The Bucintoro was a rowed vessel, richly decorated with gold and bas-reliefs on which the Doge of Venice rode every year on the Feast of the Ascension to celebrate the marriage of Venice with the Sea. Part of the ritual included throwing a gold wedding ring into the water at the port of San Nicolò di Lido. The ceremony commemorated the expedition in the year 1000 when the Doge Pietro Oseolo II freed the Adriatic from the pirates. The canvas, painted for Joseph Smith, the English consul in Venice and Canaletto’s new dealer, was included of a series of fourteen engravings of scenes of Venice that the Englishman had ordered from Antonio Visentini. The 1735 publication of a compendium entitled Prospectus magni Canalis Venetiarium enjoyed such a success that seven years later he published a second edition with another twenty-four plates. In 1762 the consul sold his art collection to King George III, and that is how fifty paintings and fifty drawings by the Venetian master came to Windsor.
The Basin of San Marco Looking East
Before this canvas reached the Boston Museum in 1939 it was part of a series of seventeen vedute ordered by the Earl of Carlisle for Northumberland Castle. This large and grandiose scene encompasses the entire basin of San Marco from the Granai di Terranova that were demolished during the Napoleonic era to the far eastern tip of the Giudecca, in a broad panorama taken of several simultaneous view of the Dogana, with a bird’s eye effect. The waters are crowded with crafts of all types, and populated by countless rather stereotyped figures. The theory of architecture is described in detail, so that the new bell tower of Sant’Antonio that is visible in the background on the left makes it possible to date this masterpiece of technical-perspective virtuosity and refined balance of color and light around 1738.
Venice on the Feast Day of Saint Roch
The painting depicts the feast of Saint Roch that was celebrated in Venice on 16 August every year, when the Doge and his whole colorful entourage attended mass in the church dedicated to the saint that protected the city from the plague. Then he would go the Scuola Grande where the works of the artists who belonged to the painters’ guild would be displayed on the façade. Canaletto portrays the procession, enlivened by the senators’ bright red robes, with meticulous detail as it leaves the church and heads for – under an awning supported by wooden posts driven into the paving (the holes are still visible even today) – the Scuola of Saint Roch where the traditional banquet hosted by the confraternity was held. The only one of the paintings on the façade of the Scuola and the adjacent buildings that can be identified may be the first on the right which some scholars consider to be one of the many renderings of the Regatta on the Grand Canal.
A series of Roman scenes dates from 1742; most of them are conserved in the Royal Collection at Windsor. Based almost certainly on drawings done by Bernardo Bellotto during his Roman sojourn, Canaletto celebrated the sites and monuments of the Urbe on the basis of his nephew’s drawings. Canaletto could not have been easy to get along with, in fact period documents describe him as sullen, miserly, and not even very amiable to his clients. He was certainly a solitary man: he never married, had a family or even established an atelier. The only artist who remained close to him for any time was his nephew Bernardo Bellotto. But even that relationship could not be considered easy, it seems plausible that Bellotto’s decision to move to Northern Europe between 1742 and 1746 was due to his uncle’s jealousy – triggered by the talent his nephew showed from the beginning of his career.
Warwick Castle from the South
Between 1748 and 1752 Canaletto did five paintings and three drawings for Sir Francis Greville of Warwick Castle, his family’s seat. The earl wanted to immortalize this impressive Norman manor house that had recently been remodeled in the Neogothic style and embellished with an English garden. The clean, luminous style of these vedute, which are now scattered among several collections, was to influence English landscape painters throughout the eighteenth century.
Westminster Abbey with a Procession of the Knights of the Bath
Between 1746 and 1755 Canaletto lived in London where, in 1749 he painted the canvas that immortalizes the solemn ceremony of the investiture of the knights of the Bath for Sir Joseph Wilkocks, the Dean of Westminster Abbey. The order, that had been created in 1399 was revived by George II in 1725. With clean lines, the painter lavishly details the long procession as it leaves the Abbey to go to the House of Lords. The new western façade of the Abbey, ordered by Wilkocks, is depicted in painstaking detail while Wilkocks himself is portrayed with the red cape of the order over the cassock. Behind him is the Duke of Montague, the Great Master of the Order wearing the same cape and plumed white hat. All around spectators watch the procession with annotations that recall several of Canaletto’s Venetian scenes.
Capriccio with Colonnade
As a tribute to the members of the Venetian Academy in 1765, two years after he was elected, Canaletto did this capriccio of the atrium of a non-existent Venetian palazzo in a way proclaiming his desire to offer a well planned example of his skills in the specific field of perspective painting. As usual, numerous figures enliven the scene: in the foreground a servant is draping a cloth on the balustrade; at the far right there is a woman sewing; a kneeling man begs for alms. The canvas was very well received, so much so that when Canaletto died it was displayed in Piazza San Marco to honor the artist’s memory during the Feast of the Ascension.