Canaletto: The Painter of Views

I had the pleasure the other day to go with Jane to see a film on the Italian C17th artist Canaletto whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768).
(Source: Famous People)

Canaletto is best known for his paintings of Venice and this one is indicative of his remarkable works showing the Rialto Bridge from the South. In fact Canaletto’s attention to the Rialto Bridge gave it the currency which made it so famous for so many hundreds of years. (Plant, 2002)

Some of you will be familiar with Canaletto’s paintings of Rome as illustrated here in View of Piazza Del Campidoglio and Cordonata, Rome.

Canaletto also lived in London from 1746-1756 and painted many scenes especially along the Thames as seen here in The River Thames with St Paul's Cathedral on Lord Mayors Day, painted in about 1747.

There is so much to know about Canaletto who was not only a brilliant painter but an accomplished print maker using the dry point etching technique. This is an etching of Venice showing the Grand Canal looking North East from Santa Croce to San Geremia. I am going to deal with his etchings in a separate blog and cover a little more on the technique of dry point etching.

Canaletto got his mononym because he was the son of Bernardo Canal and Canaletto means little Canal. His father was a theatre scene painter and Canaletto started his artistic career as an apprentice in this art form. I wish I had known this when we were looking into the painting of theatrical scenes. Not that I have been able to find any of the theatre works created by Canaletto's father to show you.

Canaletto was inspired by the Roman vedutista Giovanni Paolo Pannini, and started painting the daily life of the city and its people. A veduta is a painting (though most often a print), usually large scale, of a cityscape or other large scale vista. The images are highly detailed. And this is what Canaletto has become most famous for. Look at the intricate details on the buildings and in the vessels on the water.
Every person is different: different clothing, different poses, different actions. I can spend hours studying the narratives that are carried by the figures that populate his images. This is a slice from The River Thames with St. Paul's Cathedral on Lord Mayor's Day as seen above.

Canaletto was also an expert in creating the different ways light can appear in a scene. Look at the way the light illuminates the sides of the buildings in The Stonemasons Yard (1728). Expert control of the different tones of umber and the bright white light illuminating the focus of the work: the stones.
He also utilised delicate touches of light along the buildings and on the people in the foreground.

Here is a close up of a couple of figures from Canaletto’s Bacino di S. Marco so you can see how he has applied his light and shade. Notice also that the birds in the cages have been painted with delicate touches of colour to resemble their shapes. No details are necessary to convey the image of the feathered creatures.
(Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

And in The Colosseum you can see how he has just applied tiny dobs of light to hightlight faces, arms, legs.

Some people believe that many of Canaletto’s works were en plein air paintings (painted outdoors) and that he used the camera obscura. But the research done by the art historian experts at the Royal Collection in the UK indicates that he made detailed pencil drawings of the scenes and returned to his studio to create the paintings. Below we have a sketch in pen and brush done in brown ink with a grey wash, over graphite, on ivory laid paper. Here we can see his expertise in architectural knowledge and skill with a pencil or pen. The sketch is of a Street Crossed by Arches (recto) Sketches of Doorway, Staircase and Second Floor of Building (verso) c. 1720.
(Source: Art Institute of Chicago)

One of the many aspects of Canaletto’s paintings that I love are his dogs. They, like the people, are engaged in all kinds of activities-in this case that dogs get up to! In fact Dog Spotting in Canaletto’s works is a hobby for some enthusiasts! This one is in the painting Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Molo.

Jane and I are preparing to do some blogs on animals in art: paintings, sculptures and any other medium we come across so I won’t spend any more time on Canaletto’s dogs as we will see some more later.

Before concluding today I need to introduce you to Joseph Smith who was also known as Consul Smith (c1682 – 1770) and was the British consul in Venice from 1744–1760. A consul in those days didn’t hold a diplomatic position but was involved in trading and merchant banking. Smith became a collector of art works and purchased a great number of Canaletto’s works for himself. Also a passionate book collector, Smith along with Giovanni Battista Pasquali, founded the Pasquali Press, which produced some of the finest publications in mid-century Venice especially in the fields of literature, science, mathematics and architecture. (Wikipedia) This is thought to be his home in Venice. So Joseph did okay for himself especially by purchasing Canaletto paintings.

However, Smith did eventually run into financial difficulties and sold his collection to George 111 of Britain and this is how the British Royal Collection includes so many Canalettos.

But- Smith not only collected art works for himself he ran a roaring trade in selling Canalettos to British aristocrats on the Grand Tour. And from what I have read it was probably Smith who encouraged Canaletto to move to England and of course Canaletto knew there were all those British aristocrats waiting to decorate their homes with his creative pieces. So tomorrow we’re off to London to look at some of the images Canaletto produced while living in England. We will also consider why Canaletto's reputation suffered somewhat in that green and pleasant land.

To the painters amongst the subscribers, practise those dobs of paint, those dashes of light - using a deft touch. I am!

Reference: Plant, Margaret, Venice: Fragile City, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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