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(Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768)


Italian painter. He was a painter of townscapes (vedute), principally of Venice, and was trained initially by his father as a scene painter. His earliest known signed and dated work, Architectural Capriccio, (1723, Milan, private collection) reflects this training.

However, in c1719-20 he was in Rome, where he saw and was influenced by Panini's paintings of recognizable Roman views. Canaletto was back in Venice in 1720 for, from that date until 1767, he is listed in the fraglia (Venetian painters' guild). His earliest documented views of Venice were for Stefano Conti of Lucca (four paintings, 1725-6, Montreal, private collection). The paintings of this period, generally regarded as his best, display the qualities which ensured he would take up the mantle of his principal precursor Luca Carlevaris. The finest work is perhaps The Stonemason's Yard (c1729, London, National Gallery): the paint is fluently handled, the colour is rich with bold contrasts of light and shade, and the figures, though small in scale, are lively to an extent lost in the shorthand figures of his later pictures. These early paintings are unusual for their time in that they were apparently painted directly from nature, rather than from the traditional practice of making studies on site for working up back in the studio; only later did Canaletto revert to the more usual practice, frequently using a camera obscura as a drawing aid. (The lens of this device has the unfortunate effect of reducing distant figures to blurs and has been presumed as the source of Canaletto's later manner of creating figures from blobs of colour.) The Stonemason's Yard is unusual in that it represents a ramshackle working area of the city. Canaletto's real market was for views of the splendid architectural sights, preferably richly decked out for some festive occasion (e.g., Venice: the Feast Day of St. Roch, early 1730s, London, National Gallery) or better, a regatta on the Grand Canal (e.g., The Bucintoro Returning to the Molo on Ascension Day, c1730, Milan, Aldo Crespi Collection).

Canaletto soon attracted the notice of English visitors and by 1730 had come to a working arrangement with Joseph Smith (later British consul in Venice) who not only bought pictures from him, but acted as agent for sales to other British customers. Encouraged by the strength of his English market, Canaletto travelled to England in 1746, returning to Venice only for short periods, until his final return c1756. He attempted developing a market for English views, but experienced great difficulty. Also, his style had by now become somewhat hardened, mechanical even, to the extent that in 1749, the English art critic and historian, George Vertue, publicly suggested that the present 'Canaletto' was an impostor. Canaletto responded by giving public demonstrations of his ability as a painter, but seems not to have largely improved his fortunes. He eventually returned to Venice and in 1763 was finally elected to the Venetian Academy. He continued to paint until his death in 1768, but never regained the commercial success of his early years. Owing to his popularity with English travellers, most of his paintings are in Britain. Canaletto's nephew and pupil, Bernardo Bellotto, worked in a similar style.

- From The Bulfinch Guide to Art History

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Canaletto images

1740s The Reception of the French Ambassador in Venice
1747 Westminster Bridge, London, with the Lord Mayor's Procession on the Thames
1752 London: Northumberland House
c. 1755 View of the Ducal Palace in Venice
c. 1758-63 The Campo di Rialto

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