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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on January 8, 2024
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The beauty of Venice was brought to life in homes all around the world thanks to the exquisite compositions of 17th century painter, draughtsman and engraver, Canaletto.

Artist Overview

He also exported his talents to the cities of Rome and London as well. This proud Venetian captured some of the key sights in his own city on huge canvases in which he detailed both the stunning architecture to be found here, as well as depicting the lives of ordinary locals.

The artist would set up a large studio from where he would tutor a number of talented students, many of whom would go onto develop notable careers of their own. Whilst they used similar artistic styles to his own, just as most studios would encourage, it was the master's work that remained the most respected of all. In all, he produced many hundreds of paintings during his career which was an extraordinary amount considering the level of detail that he incorporated into many of them, as well as the size of canvas that he commonly worked on.

Rococo Movement

Canaletto was part of the Rococo art movement, whose style was famously elaborate and full of creative flourishes. This Venetian would fulfil this criteria by providing bright, upbeat scenes of his local city and then appending huge numbers of figures alongside boats, animals and any other item suitable for that particular scene.

Signature Style

He is most remembered for his gondolas and oarsmen which are fitted into the near foreground on many of his paintings, with the architectural structure of the city then dominating behind. Many other artists were inspired by his contributions to the point where they would actually take extended breaks in the city themselves too, some even travelling from as far as the United States in order to view these traditional scenes with their own eyes.

The artist would produce stunning scapes which proved popular with visitors to each of the cities in which he worked. Whilst being particularly precise, Canaletto always put more importance on the balance and harmony of the painting, rather than attempting to be too precise in re-capturing the original location in a purely realistic manner. So whilst being far from a Romanticist artist in style, he did amend reality somewhat in order to deliver a more impressive artwork.

Financially Successful

He also realised that this approach was more to the liking of his customers and so essential to his financial survival. He worked in three of the most popular tourist cities in Europe across his career, namely Venice, Rome and London and each location offered a wealth of opportunity from which to unleash his talents. There were built up areas with a variety of architecture and also several landmarks that would be instantly recognisable to those viewing his paintings.

The travels taken by Canaletto allowed the artist's influence and legacy to spread beyond just the boundaries of his native city. He would, for example, leave a huge impact in English landscape artists from his time there, including in the high class etchings which lifted the bar in that genre right across the country. Whilst many would follow on from his career and establish a world-respected English School, it is sometimes forgotten that it was an Italian who left a significant impact some decades earlier.

This phase of his career also helped to remind North Europeans about the technical brilliance of many Italian artists, and so in future generations many would travel over in the opposite direction in order to develop their own technical knowledge and broaden the influences upon their work. One of the best examples of this would be William Turner who produced huge numbers of watercolours in and around the city of Venice whilst on his own artistic pilgrimage. Turner himself was born just a few years after the Venetian had passed away, ensuring the link between their careers was always likely.

He paints with such accuracy and cunning that the eye is deceived and truly believes it is the real thing it sees, not a painting.

G.P. Guarienti

Architectural Features

An element to Canaletto's compositions that many will be entirely unaware of this is that he would sometimes add architectural items to his scenes that were purely from his imagination, and then append them to an otherwise accurate recreation of what he would have witnessed at the time. He had an ability to fuse these two worlds together seamlessly, to the point where most never noticed what he had done.

It was as if he was taking stunning settings across major European cities and actually improving upon their visual appeal, by using his own imagination and also his strong understanding of local architecture and each region's natural surroundings. In the present day it is the level of detail that astounds and excites so many of us, aligned with the beautiful locations that he chose for his work. His career offers aesthetic beauty that is accessible to the public, making his work memorable and also suitable for mainstream art followers.

There are many who have put forward the suggestion that Claude Lorrain was a key influence on the earlier part of Canaletto's career. He completed a number of architectural depictions in which he focused on vary levels of ruin, often within more open settings than in how he worked in the years that followed. There were occasional figures dotted around and this relates to the work of Claude, someone who worked successfully in Italy and passed away just a few years before Canaletto was born.

Rise of Landscape Art

One can actually track landscape art through the ages in this way, leading to the English Romanticists of Turner and Constable and then on to Monet and the rest of the French Impressionists. It can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint precise influence, but in many cases there is even documentation explaining how one artist would view another's within the major art galleries of each city in which they worked. Rome, Paris, London and Venice offer good examples of this and have inspired artists from all manner of different movements for many centuries.

Art in Venice

The famous Venetian was named Canaletto because his father carried the surname of Canal, making him the small Canal. He came along at a time when Italian art had dominated for several centuries through the various phases of the Renaissance and left behind a huge legacy which had now spread across to other parts of Europe. Success was now more dispersed across the continent, and so Italian art needed some new artists to inspire once more and reclaim some of that earlier dominance that was established by the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Landscape art had been very much a niche genre during that era but now it was time for it to come out from the shadows and become more respected by academics as well as working on an equal footing with more traditional genres such as history painting and religious depictions. He achievements would then lead on to the later movements discussed elsewhere, such as the Impressionists and Romanticists, which was typical of the journey taken by art history over the centuries.

Venetian and so distinctive a painter of views that few amongst past artists, and none amongst the favorites, come close to him in intelligence, taste and truth.

Anton Maria Zanetti the Younger

Foreign Travels

The artist spent around six years living in the UK before returning to Venice, where he spent the last decade of his life. By this time he had received multiple awards and was held in high regard right across Europe, although some critics was starting to consider his output as stale, and not as exciting as his earlier paintings. Perhaps he had run out of steam by this period, and required new innovations in order to freshen up his oeuvre.

It may have been that the artist had moved so far into producing commercially-viable art that some of his original strengths were now being watered down in favour of pandering to the tastes of his patrons. This is a balance that many an artist has struggled with over the years, where endless experimentation and innovation will not necessarily be the route to financial security, and so a path somewhere in the middle will normally need to be forged. Canaletto also stuck so closely to a single genre that it may have been inevitable that after producing hundreds of paintings, drawings and etchings that he could finally be achieved of a level of repetition within his output.

Canaletto as a Brand

The concentration on cityscapes may have led to criticism from some towards the end of his career, but actually also helped Canaletto to produce something of a brand. His work became instantly recognisable and although others worked in a similar way in the following decades, no-one would ever come close to achieving the same level of success as he did. Even today one can spot a Canaletto from a good distance away in one of the many great galleries and museums of Europe.

It is the combination of his common focus on Venice, but also the way in which he captured detail so precisely, whilst also adding an element of fun and life to each scene. This explains why his work remains so popular today and is undeniably accessible for the masses who do not always wish to spend time understanding the backstory behind a particular artwork. Canaletto's work strikes you immediately, with its beauty and technical brilliance, without a need to understand subtle touches of symbolism or an abstract form of something from the real world.

Canal taught, by example the true use of the camera obscura; and to recognize the flaws usually brought to bear on a painting, when the craftsman relies completely on the perspective he views through that same camera, and on the colors - especially of the skies - without deftly removing that which could offend the senses.

Anton Maria Zanetti the Younger