Canaletto – 1697 – 1768

Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto.  Was an Italian painter of city views or vedute, of Venice, Rome, and London. He also painted imaginary views (referred to as capricci), although the demarcation in his works between the real and the imaginary is never quite clear-cut.

Canaletto served his apprenticeship with his father and his brother. He began in his father’s occupation, that of a theatrical scene painter. His first known signed and dated work is Architectural Capriccio (1723, Milan, in a private collection).

Studying with the older Luca Carlevarijs, a well-regarded painter of urban cityscapes, he rapidly became his master’s equal. Much of Canaletto’s early artwork was painted “from nature”, differing from the then customary practice of completing paintings in the studio. Some of his later works do revert to this custom, as suggested by the tendency for distant figures to be painted as blobs of colour – an effect possibly produced by using a camera obscura, which blurs farther-away objects – although research by art historians working for the Royal Collection in the United Kingdom has shown Canaletto almost never used a camera obscura.

Many of his pictures were sold to Englishmen on their Grand Tour, first through the agency of Owen Swiny and later the banker Joseph Smith, appointed British Consul in Venice in 1744. It was Swiny in the late 1720s who encouraged the artist to paint small topographical views of Venice with a commercial appeal for tourists and foreign visitors to the city. Sometime before 1728, Canaletto began his association with Joseph Smith, an English businessman and collector living in Venice, who later became the artist’s principal agent and patron. Smith eventually acquired nearly fifty paintings, one hundred fifty drawings, and fifteen rare etchings from Canaletto, the largest and finest single group of the artist’s works, that he sold to King George III in 1763.

He was often expected to paint England in the fashion with which he had painted his native city. Canaletto’s painting began to suffer from repetitiveness, losing its fluidity, and becoming mechanical to the point that the English art critic George Vertue suggested that the man painting under the name ‘Canaletto’ was an impostor.

The artist was compelled to give public painting demonstrations in order to refute this claim; however, his reputation never fully recovered in his lifetime. Canaletto’s views always fetched high prices, and as early as the 18th century Catherine the Great and other European monarchs vied for his grandest paintings. The record price paid at auction for a Canaletto is £18.6 million for View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto, set at Sotheby’s in London in July 2005.

 

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