Canaletto is the most widely recognized view-painter of the city of Venice and is one of the most collected Old Master painters of all time. Canaletto began life as theatrical painter, and the understanding of perspective this instilled helped him all his life. His earliest works are probably a pair of large architectural fantasies such as one might expect of a stage set. By the mid 1720s, however, Canaletto decided to focus on his activities as a painter of views. In doing this he was following in the footsteps of two artists who specialized in vedute, Gaspar van Wittel (1653–1736)—a Dutchman who settled in Italy where he was known as Vanvitelli—and Luca Carlevaris (1663–1730) both catering to a growing population of visitors to Venice. Canaletto’s early views are large in scale, at least a meter wide, and are dramatic: with steeply angled perspective, broadly painted on a dark ground, deep in tone and highly atmospheric, the sky and water full of movement. The most famous of this type are in Dresden where they have been since 1741.
By the late 1720s Canaletto found two patrons who would change his life, the businessman and eventual Consul, Joseph Smith and the Irish adventurer, Owen McSweeney. McSweeney had some important clients, chief among them the young Duke of Richmond for whom Canaletto painted a small pair of jewel-like views on copper. This scale would swiftly become closer to the format on which Canaletto produced hundreds of what were in effect painted picture postcards of Venice. At the same time, Canaletto painted for Joseph Smith a series of large views which he would keep for the next forty years. These are painted in a broad style, which links them to his earlier works and which found its ultimate expression in The Stonemason’s Yard (National Gallery, London), a view of a church across the Grand Canal seen from a builder’s yard. The somber palette and quotidian subject matter make this an exceptional painting in Canaletto’s oeuvre. More typical are a series of forty-three smaller views of the Grand Canal and other Venetian landmarks painted through Smith for the Duke of Bedford and Sir Robert Harvey. Each measure about 18 x 30 inches and are executed in crystalline, bright blues with delicacy and economy. The perfection of the drawing, the luminous play of light on the water, the movement in the sky and the charm of the rapidly painted people made these the ultimate, collectable Venetian works of art. At the same time, Canaletto painted larger compositions, depicting official events such as regattas and Ascension Day many of which were also destined for Smith’s collection.
Canaletto’s views were based on meticulous drawings, both of the architecture, the figures and the broader perspectival plan. He is known to have used a camera obscura to help him compose his views, though Canaletto took liberties with the real lay of the architecture. By the 1740s, Canaletto’s popularity declined as his works became increasingly dry and repetitive. So, in 1746 he moved to England. Although his English works are characterized by an even, sunny light such as one rarely sees in Britain, he produced a number of paintings there of outstanding quality, notably views of the Thames and a series of Warwick Castle. By 1753, Canaletto returned to Venice where he continued to paint vedute. By now, although on occasion he could reproduce his earlier manner, Canaletto had evolved a sort of shorthand by which tiles, people and ripples were rendered with squiggles and blobs of paint. In 1762, Consul Smith sold to George III the best works from his collection and in six years later Canaletto was dead.
In addition to his views of Venice and England, Canaletto painted capricci—imaginary mixtures of elements from real or imaginary monuments—views of the terra firma outside Venice and views of Rome. Many of Canaletto’s views were engraved by Antonio Visentini (1688–1782) and Canaletto was a great printmaker in his own right. He was also a superlative and prolific draughtsman. His artistic successor was his nephew Bernardo Bellotto (1721–80).
Top Auction Results for Il Canaletto
Venice, the Grand Canal, looking north-east from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge
Sold for £18,600,000 ($32,677,442)
London, Sotheby’s, 7 July 2005, Old Master Paintings (Evening Sale), lot 47
The Bucintoro at the Molo, Venice, on Ascension Day
Sold for £11,432,000 ($20,126,760)
London, Christie’s, 6 July 2005, The Champalimaud Collection (Evening Sale), lot 20
The Old Horse Guards, London, From St. James's Park
Sold for £9,200,000 ($16,154,522)
London, Christie’s, 15 April 1992, Important and Fine Old Master Pictures, lot 59