Francesco Guardi can be paired with Canaletto as one of the two great view painters of eighteenth-century Venice. However, their style could not be more different. Guardi’s brushwork is nervous and flickering, his figures painted with rapid dashes of paint, sometimes seemingly out of scale with the setting and he seems far more concerned with the effects of changing weather than did his rival. Francesco Guardi came from a family of painters, the most important of whom was his older brother, Antonio (1699–1760). At the beginning of his career, Francesco painted subject pictures, altarpieces and mythologies, in his brother’s studio. On occasion they collaborated, such as is likely in Erminia and the Shepherds (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) painted in the 1750s. Francesco had already developed a fluid style, with broken brushstrokes and a slightly exaggerated elegance in the drawing of figures.
During the 1750s Francesco began to paint scenes from contemporary Venetian life, notably depictions of the casinos (ridotti) and similar scenes which show Venetian society, often in masks, flirting and gambling such as Il Ridotto and Il Parlatorio (Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice). Upon the death of Antonio in 1760, Francesco turns to the painting of vedute to make his living. He may have received some instruction from Canaletto whose compositions he sometimes copied. What are generally considered to be Guardi’s earliest views are quite different from his later work. They are painted smoothly in a pale, limpid palette and often portray views of calm, open water such as the Lagoon or the Giudecca Canal. Like Canaletto, he found immediate success with both English and French milordi, making the Grand Tour, having established his reputation with a pair of large views of each side of the Rialto Bridge. Guardi painted on a variety of scales from small cabinet pictures among them the haunting Gondolas in the Lagoon (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan) to such glittering showpieces as the Departure of the Bucintoro (musée du Louvre, Paris). Because of his propensity for a less sunny palette, Guardi has sometimes been seen as a melancholic artist whose works presage the decline and fall of the Republic. However, although one might say that many of his works are indeed painted in the minor key, his bright silvery palette and enthusiasm for Venetian pageantry suggest that a more upbeat mind is often at work. Guardi was a technically versatile artist who enjoyed taking any opportunity to distort perspective for dramatic effect in a way Canaletto rarely did, as we can see in his numerous views of the Piazza San Marco.
In addition to views of Venice, Guardi painted many imaginary scenes of figures with dilapidated architecture, usually on some island in the Lagoon. These Capricci were painted on both a large and small scale. He also painted dramatic single events, most famously the Fire at San Marcuola (Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich) as well as a series of portraits of villas on the mainland such as the Villa Loredan (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Top Auction Results for Francesco Guardi
Venice, a view of the Rialto Bridge, looking north (from The Fondamenta del carbon)
Sold for £26,697,250 ($42,708,768)
London, Sotheby’s, 6 July 2011, Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale, lot 73
Venice: the Rialto Bridge with the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi
Sold for £26,205,000 ($33,979,512)
London, Christie’s, 6 July 2017, Old Masters Evening Sale, lot 25
Venice, the Bacino di San Marco, with the Piazzetta and the Doge's Palace
Sold for £9,882,500 ($16,924,988)
London, Christie’s, 8 July 2014, Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale, lot 19