Canaletto (full name – Giovanni Antonio Canal) was an Italian representative of Rococo epoch, one of the prominent masters of venetian veduta. His nephew Bernardo Belotto, another famous landscape painter, had the same nickname (Canaletto).
Antonio Canal was born on October, 7, 1697 in Venice. He started training in the workshop of his father – stage designer Bernardo Canal (that’s why he was known as “Canaletto” – “Canal Junior”). Worked in Rome for a couple of years (1719 – 1720) and then came back to Venice.
Started has career as a theater artist, helping his father in creating setting for various plays. Under the influence of Dutch painter Caspar van Wittel and Italian vedutista Luca Carlevarijs he became interested in the cityscape genre. Canaletto was probably also familiar with canvases of Giovanni Paolo Pannini and Viviano Codazzi, famous for their images of ancient roman buildings. Sketches from nature Antonio made during his stay in Rome the artist used for the early capriccios – “The Arch of Septimius Severus” (1719), “Architectural Capriccio” (1723, the first known works, signed by Canaletto). In those works, his style is defined by clear allocation of lights and shadows with big spots of dark and bright tones. Compositions were built on the principle of angular perspective with a side-ways view of monumental buildings, often situated by the sea.
Canaletto’s manner noticeably differed from other vedutists, as he painted immediately from nature, without prior etudes. Later he started painting in studio using camera obscura. Pieces of the master, despite his young age, were valued no less than creations of such renowned artist as Carlevarijs, for instance. Their vividness and fulfillment with light quickly attracted attention not only of the connoisseurs but two art-dealers, who would play an important role in Antionio’s life.
The first one was Irish Owen Swiny, who commissed works from Italian artists for British collectors. Traditionally vedutas of those years were large-scaled. Owen proposed Canaletto to paint miniature views of Venice. This idea was incredibly successful and many small canvases were sold to wealthy Englishmen, who visited the city.
The painter worked in Venice since 1723 and was accepted to the “Fraglia dei Pittori” (Venetian painters’ guild). In the cityscapes of 1730s, Antonio rejected principles of illusionary construction of space with perspective, mastering new methods in his experiments. Using camera obscura (it’s still preserved in the Correr Museum) he fixated the foreshortening of usually wide panoramic view, clearly modeling it, as if objects were approaching towards a viewer. Topographic accuracy is always combined in his canvases with a little bit decorative, exaggerated perception of color the author used to recreate festive and theatrical atmosphere of Venice.
Canaletto started to force prices up unreasonably, profiting from the benevolence of his admirers. As a result, Owen Swiny severed their partnership. But the painter was a lucky one and gained popularity for his works commissioned by the British consul at Venice Joseph Smith and the 4th Duke of Bedford. In parallel he started publishing etchings from his pieces, which brought him recognition all over Europe.
The master manage to combine veduta with historical genre, pedantically depicting scenes of crowded celebrations in honor of doge in such works as “The Reception of the French Ambassador in Venice” (1729) and “The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day” (c. 1732).
The polychromic coloring of these canvases, connected with various festivities was replaced with calmer gamma in the pictures of everyday life of the city. Landscapes “The Stonemason’s Yard” (1730) and “Rio dei Mendicanti” (1724) were rendered in tiny dotted brushstrokes (“tocco forte”). They don’t have tense dynamism of big color spots as in early roman capriccios. Canaletto elaborates intesity of tone according to perspective, making gradations of light and shade more and more subtle, smoothing geometric lucidity of plans, silhouettes of buildings and achieving tonal consonance of sky, water, architecture and staffage.
His paintings of the most picturesque places of the city with church Santa Maria della Salute and San Giorgio Maggiore Island with a Palladio’s temple (“The Entrance to the Grand Canal”, 1745, “The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco”, 1747) seemed to become symbols of Venice, leaving a flavor of nostalgia.Apart from vedutas Canaletto made capriccios in 1730s – 1740s. Venetian and Roman architecture, often matched together on them, look like a grandiose theatrical decoration (“View of the Arch of Constantine with the Colosseum”, 1743, “The Field and the Church of San Francesco della Vigna”, 1744).
Joseph Smith made Antonio an order for 12 views of Grand Canal and scenes with Venetian carnivals. Another master, Antonio Visentini made engravings from them. They were included into an album, which was sent to England. Canaletto was swamped with commissions after that. Second, additional, album made him a true artistic celebrity. The painter couldn’t cope with the amount of work and had to hire assistants. However, such raging success also had the reverse side. Other artists started imitating his style and the market was flooded with hundreds of fakes. Very soon the demand for Canaletto receded.
The outburst of the War of the Austrian Succession affected Canaletto, as British clients now rarely visited the Continent. So, the artist decided to move closer to his market and worked in England in 1746 – 1750 and 1751 – 1756. He even made an self-portrait there with the St. Paul’s Cathedral on the background. The oval shape of the canvas make it similar to a window.
In Britain Canaletto painted some views of the river Thames (“Old Walton Bridge over the Thames”, 1754), medieval temples and chapels (“The Chapel of Eton College”, 1747) and scenes of crowded gathering on Thames (“The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day”, 1747 – 1748). He wanted to express the character of the North landscape, which isn’t as vivid and bright, as Italian one, but still defined by its attractive naturalness. Antonio liked capturing English parks with their eternal perspective depth and neo-Palladian halls, lost in their verdure.
His paintings were demanded again, yet couldn’t compare with his venetian vedutas. Canaletto failed as he saw London through the prism of his previous experience, depriving it of the distinctive character. His Thames looked more like Grand Canal.
After his return to Venice in 1756 Canaletto was mainly repeating old subjects of capriccios and didn’t create works equal by the artistry to the early canvases. He worked for publishers, executing drawings for serieses of cityscape prints and made etchings himself (Antonio had first applied that technique in 1740s). In 1763, the 60-years old artist was elected to the Venetian Academy, only after.
He died on April 19, 1768, leaving a priceless heritage that influenced further development of the cityscape genre of the 18th – 19th centuries.