Canaletto, ‘The Mouth of the Grand Canal looking West towards the Carità’, c. 1729–30 Canaletto, ‘The Mouth of the Grand Canal looking West towards the Carità’, c. 1729–30

Fashionable in the 18th century, the veduta was an art genre of making a realistic and grandiose portrait of a city. Such paintings offered broad cityscapes in which humans were often reduced to incidental passers-by. The veduta is possibly the most urban-focused genre in the history of painting.

During Canaletto’s era, the veduta had already been around for several centuries in the West. Canaletto, however, was the one who would elevate the genre to a new level of perfection. Extraordinarily talented, the artist quickly became popular thanks to his depictions of spectacular city views that unveiled uncanny meticulousness and topographical details. For wealthy clients who enjoyed traveling in Europe (often in the course of Grand Tours), his vedute were highly prized as souvenirs.

Canaletto, ‘Basilica San Marco and Campo San Basso’, c. 1722 Canaletto, ‘Basilica San Marco and Campo San Basso’, c. 1722

Until the 1730s, Canaletto’s style was fairly free-spirited. The painter’s depictions were suggestive rather than descriptive, as shown by his Arch of Constantine (1720) or Basilica San Marco and Campo San Basso (c.1722). Canaletto also proved his sociological curiosity by depicting both The Beggars’ Canal (1723) and The Grand Canal (1728). The documentation of his compositions is valuable today. For example, The Isles of San Cristoforo, San Michele and Murano (c. 1725) testifies to one episode from the history of the city: the gathering of glassmakers in Murano to reduce the risks of fire in the city.

Canaletto, ‘S. Pietro in Castello’, c. 1730s. Collection of the National Gallery Canaletto, ‘S. Pietro in Castello’, c. 1730s. Collection of the National Gallery

Conscious of the aesthetic attractions that his paintings held for rich European clients, Canaletto did not always adhere to reality. In The North Lagoon Islands from San Pietro di Castello (c. 1725), for example, he blew up the size of the mountains which in fact are barely visible from the Venetian horizon. It didn’t take long for his talent to gain renown throughout Europe. In 1726, the Duke of Richmond ordered 24 paintings from him. The Duke of Bedford followed this example in 1732. Even King George III of England would become one of his clients.

Canaletto, ‘Entrance to the Cannaregio’, c. 1734-42 Canaletto, ‘Entrance to the Cannaregio’, c. 1734-42

In the 1730s, Canaletto changed his style, paying more painstaking care to detail. European courts, however, were already knowledgable of this rigor, which the painter had exercised all along for his overseas commissions. During this decade, Canaletto met the art dealer Joseph Smith, who became his agent. As demand rose for his work, Canaletto would take to copying then recopying his paintings, well aware of the financial gain they could reap him. His works were presented as official representations of Venice, such as his View of the Rio di Cannaregio (c. 1745), which shows some of Venice’s most celebrated palaces in a single sweeping view.

In 1741, the War of the Austrian Succession had effects that spilled over to the city. Few travelers came to Venice, and Canaletto embarked on a trip to England. But the visit didn’t turn out so well. The Venetian artist found himself embroiled in a few conflicts sparked by his talent and strong character.

Canaletto, ‘Eton College’, c. 1754, collection of the National Gallery Canaletto, ‘Eton College’, c. 1754, collection of the National Gallery

At the war’s conclusion, Canaletto returned to Italy in 1755. Now at the height of his career, he mingled reality and fantasy in his works, a tendency that had already come to light in his English paintings. For example, he depicted non-existent bridges such as in Palladio’s Design for the Rialto Bridge, c. 1745.

Despite Canaletto’s overwhelming popularity, he didn’t manage to be elected to the Venetian Academy until 1763. In the eyes of Academy members, the vedute remained a minor genre. Old age and sickness led to the painter’s death in 1768.

Left to right: Portrait of Canaletto. Photo: The British Museum; Portrait of Francesco Guardi by Pietro Longhi (1764); Self-portrait of Bernardo Bellotto, c. 1765. Photo: National Museum in Warsaw Left to right: Portrait of Canaletto. Photo: The British Museum; Portrait of Francesco Guardi by Pietro Longhi (1764); Self-portrait of Bernardo Bellotto, c. 1765. Photo: National Museum in Warsaw

We’d be remiss to to talk about Canaletto without mentioning his nephew Bellotto and his successor Guardi. These artists (along with Canaletto’s father) would also surf on the success of vedute. The main difference between Canaletto and Guardi lies in realism, the latter taking more liberties in order to create a more dreamlike image of Venice.

Canaletto and the vedute painters symbolized Venice’s domination of the 18th century art scene. Venice, boasting Tiepolo’s decorative talent and Rosalba Carriera’s pastels, tried to set itself up as an artistic city rivaling Paris. But in fact, the city’s golden age had long past: the city’s political turbulence meant that by the end of the 18th century, Venice was no longer a popular tourist destination. In 1797, the Venetian Republic fell when Napoleon Bonaparte deposed the city’s last Doge, and a chapter of Italian history closed forever.

Discover all items related to Canaletto up for auction on Barnebys