Canaletto: Italian Innovator

By Will Barber Taylor

Canaletto is one of those artists that is associated with Italy and not least the part of his home city that bore his name – it’s magical, enchanting and at times rather dangerous system of canals. Canaletto’s genius was not however confined to Venice, and he would be as adept at rendering the waterways of England as those of his native country. Canaletto was an innovator whose story deserves to be better known not just because of the power of his art but also the comic tragedy of his own life story.

Canaletto was born Giovanni Antonio Canal in October 1697 in Venice. His father was Bernardo Canal who was also a painter though mainly of theatrical sets for operas penned by the likes of Vivaldi. Indeed, it is from his father that Canaletto earned the name that he is most famous for as Canaletto means “little Canal”, a reference used to distinguish him from his father Bernardo. Bernardo, although he mainly specialised in painting theatrical backdrops, also helped popularise vedutas a form of highly detailed landscape pictures, usually of cityscapes.

Learning his trade at his father’s side, Canaletto grew in confidence and began to not just paint backgrounds for theatrical productions but full scale landscapes. It is through his work in the theatre that he met his first great patron – the theatre impresario and art collector Owen Swiny. Swiny, originally from Ireland had fled to Venice in 1713 as he had become bankrupt after infighting with the MP for Truro, William Collier, a share holder at the Drury Lane theatre where Swiny worked who had evicted and then prosecuted Swiny. Though bankrupt he still had connection and managed to eek out a living hiring painters for the stage. It is through this means of employment that he met Canaletto. He saw the young Venetian’s talent and worked with him to promote not just his scenery painting but also his vedutas. Swiny would however not be Canaletto’s most influential British patron – this would in fact be the future British Ambassador to Venice, Joseph Smith.

Smith, recorded for posterity as “Consul Smith” was during his early acquaintance with Canaletto a merchant banker who worked with the then British Consul in Venice, Thomas Williams. It was through his connection to the British ambassador and his work as a merchant banker that allowed Smith to sell Canaletto’s work to the British aristocracy. In the early 18th century, the Grand Tour, the tradition of British aristocrats to finish off their education by touring Europe, was still in full swing and Venice was one of their favoured destinations. Smith arranged the sale of Canaletto’s landscapes, mainly of Venice’s canals, to the tourists that flocked to the city. Of course, whilst the sale of the paintings would bring in immediate money it wasn’t a suitable source of income. One once painting was sold it would be gone into a private collection forever. By 1730 Smith had come up with a solution – the creation of engravings of Canaletto’s work. The engravings would allow for a wider market for the artist’s work and would mean that he was not as dependent on passing trade to secure his livelihood. Smith convinced the engraver and architectural designer Antonio Visentini to engrave 38 of Canaletto’s landscapes.

The produced engravings sold incredibly well and proved to be a hit with the British public. Canaletto’s bright, vivid depictions of life in Venice sparked the imagination and encouraged more people than ever to take the visit to Venice and see not just the great city but the great artist in action for themselves. The power of engravings during this period cannot be underestimated. In an era in which, unless you were very wealthy or knew someone who was very wealthy your access to great works of art would be very limited, having an engraving could be your own access to works of art. Whilst the engravings would still generally be bought by middle class art lovers, and most working class people would not gain access to them, the engravings did vastly increase the audience for Canaletto’s work.

Throughout the 1730s, Canaletto’s exposure grew thanks to help from Smith, Swiny and other members of the British expat community in London and Venice who admired the artist. Commissions came pouring in with the Duke of Bedford commissioning 24 works from the artist of various parts of Venice and the Earl of Carlisle commissioning a similar number of paintings. His view of the Bacino di San Marco became so popular that, almost on a convey belt, Canaletto would reproduce copies for his wealthy English clients. This practise of copying his own work would come back to haunt Canaletto when he arrived in England in the 1740s.

There has been speculation by some art historians that Canaletto may have used studio assistants in order to produce the vast quantity of work that he painted during the period. Whilst this is a debated point it is certainly not impossible that Canaletto used and needed the help of others in order to satisfy the demand for his work that had arisen from his adoring public. It is likely that both his father and nephew Bernardo Bellotto would have been on hand to help him given their own training as artists. Indeed, Canaletto’s nephew Bellotto would follow him abroad and it would be at least partly thanks to Bellotto that Canaletto’s reputation in England would suffer a severe hit.

As the 1730s came to an end, Canaletto’s reputation as a master of the landscape was assured. However, he was in a somewhat precarious position. As many of his admirers were English and needed Europe to be in a stable condition for them to come to Venice then, if something were to happen that would stop English tourists from coming then he would be in financial difficulty. Such an event happened when, in 1740, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died. Charles, who had produced only legitimate daughters aside from one son who died during infancy, had convinced the other European monarchs of the day to agree to allow his daughter Maria Theresa to succeed him. Upon his death however, several nations including France, Spain and Prussia reneged on the agreement plunging the continent into a war for the succession of Emperor’s throne.

As Britain was on the side of Marie Theresa, this put the country into direct conflict with the nations which British tourists would usually pass through to get to Venice. Whilst Canaletto was not initially directly affected, as Smith was still buying his work for his own collection and still able to send them abroad, it would soon become clear that the war would impact Canaletto’s ability to sell his art. From 1741 to 1742 Canaletto and his nephew toured mainland Italy, with Canaletto depicting scenes of Rome in pen and ink sketches that sold well.

However, in 1742 the Austrian War of Succession began to encroach on Italy further making trade between Venice and Britain harder. As the demand for Canaletto’s work began to dry up, his father Bernardo died in 1744. In the same year Canaletto’s agent and friend Joseph Smith was appointed British consul to Venice and it was through this official appointment that Smith had a brain wave. Given that part of the reason the Canaletto’s work was not being as well received was because of the distance between Britain and Venice, why not bring Canaletto to England? This way there would be no disruption to the sending of paintings and Canaletto could have easier access to his English patrons as he’d be right on their doorstep. It was therefore decided in 1746 that Canaletto would make the trip to London to help revive his career and gain greater recognition for his work. It would be a decision that would have severe consequences for his reputation and his relationship with his nephew.

Canaletto arrived in London in 1746 to great acclaim. His work preceded him, and he was immediately inundated with request for paintings and visit to various estates and manor houses. His old friend Owen Swiny helped him with introductions. Swiny had eventually returned to England in the 1730s and managed to re-establish himself in the world of English society. Swiny gave Canaletto an introduction to the Duke of Richmond. Richmond, who was the grandson of Charles II, requested that Canaletto paint for him. The greatest work, at least in my opinion, that Canaletto produced was his “View of the Thames from Richmond House”. The work artfully combines the beautiful with the grimy, the classical with the modern. Canaletto shows the mog lurking over the river, a foreshadowing of how smoggy would become in the decades that followed Canaletto’s visit to London. Yet beneath the smog is a typical Georgian scene – the ladies promenading along the waterfront, the boats gliding along the Thames elegantly, similar to the gondolas cutting through Venice’s canals. This clear similarity between Venice and London is probably what attracted Canaletto to London in particular.

Though he would paint a great deal of country houses and garden scenes his best work during this period always involved water and the interplay between water and land. It is surprising that Canaletto did not paint seascapes during this period given his incredible use of water however it could be perhaps suggested that he liked to stick to what he knew – the vedutas that he had pioneered with his father Bernardo. It was Canaletto’s attention to detail which made him popular with the aristocracy of England – his paintings of Windsor Castle, Dudley House and Devonshire House demonstrate a flair for bringing buildings to life. In each of these pictures, Canaletto imbues the buildings with a sense of self and individuality. They are no longer cold buildings but rather warm, lively, almost people like pictures. This allows the viewer, whether when Canaletto was painting the work or now, to get a sense of why people wished to visit these buildings and why they wanted to be depicted. Whilst they do not have the same interplay between water and land that marks Canaletto’s most engaging work, both in London and his native Venice, they had a charm which goes beyond picture postcard. They may not be the most complex works of art ever created but they certainly have a unique power of their own.

Boyed by his success in England, Canaletto briefly returned to Venice. However, his success abroad had changed him somewhat. It should be recognised that, unlike many of his contemporaries Canaletto did not greatly travel. He is often seen as the definitive Venetian painter because he spent so much time in Venice and because his work was so Venetian. His very name sums up one of the most iconic parts of Venice – it’s living, almost breathing lifeline of waterways. Yet Canaletto had obviously been aware of the impact his stay in London had made, not just to his reputation but to himself. With his father gone and his nephew in Poland there was not much keeping the artist in Venice. The War of the Austrian Succession was still raging and so his ability to get work from English tourists was still incredibly limited. Therefore, though he was no great traveller Canaletto decided to make the fateful journey back to London. This trip would be a much longer one and it would be one that would hurt Canaletto’s reputation more than he would imagine.

Arriving back in London at the end of the 1740s, Canaletto would set up his base in Soho. Soho at this time still had a connection to the arts but did not have quite the seedy reputation it would have in later decades. Canaletto settled at 41 Beak Street, with cabinet maker named Wiggins. This perhaps demonstrates the Georgian attitude towards artists – there was a kind of egalitarian view that there was no difference between someone like Canaletto and a cabinet maker because they were, in their own different ways, considered artists.

During his second stay Canaletto painted a great deal of bridges, painting evocative work of both Westminster Bridge and Old Walton Bridge. Old Walton Bridge is particularly interesting as Canaletto provides a Hitchcockian cameo for himself. Canaletto’s painting of Westminster Bridge was likely a result of his work for the Duke of Warwick, who was one of the commissioners of the bridge and a great admirer of Canaletto’s work. This is perhaps another reason that Canaletto returned to England – rather than having to work through Joseph Smith as he had to when in Venice, he would and could deal more directly with his patrons. This allowed Canaletto to move in even higher circles with members of the British Royal Family.

However, dark clouds, rather like the smog that drifted over the Thames in Canaletto’s painting from Richmond House. The artist seemed to be becoming worn out. He was after all well over fifty by this point and had been painting for most of his life and his tiredness began to be seen in his work. Critics, in particular the engraver and critic George Vertue, implied that the Canaletto active in London was in fact an imposter and one whose work shouldn’t be bought. Whether Vertue made the suggestion deliberately to harm Canaletto or he was genuinely unsure as to whether the production of art was by Canaletto, it is hard to determine. However, the work done by Vertue was critical in harming Canaletto because many people believed in the accusations. This may partly because there was something to the accusation that there were imposter Canalettos out there. This was not some simple domestic forger but Canaletto’s own nephew Bernardo who, working in the court of the King of Poland, had continually signed his work as Canaletto, working off the fame of his uncle to bolster his own career. Whilst there may be some argument that, if Bernardo had helped his uncle with the production of his work in Italy, he did have some claim to calling himself Canaletto it certainly did not help his uncle.

Canaletto became so desperate to quite the stirrings about the quality of his work and whether or not he was Canaletto that he published an invitation to anyone willing to view him at work to prove that he was indeed Canaletto. This however did not do enough to save his reputation. Canaletto finally decided to return to Venice, not exactly a broken man but one whose reputation had been damaged. After the 1750s, Canaletto would never return to Britain and his reputation internationally would not recover for the rest of his life.

Whilst Canaletto’s departure from Britain was under a rather inauspicious cloud, his work lives on today and he is rightly regarded as one of the great Venetian painters of his era. There are few who can dismiss his ability at painting both Venetian and British scenes and painting this with a flair and detail that make the scenes stand out as engaging and real to us today. Although he may not be considered one of the greatest Italian artists in comparison with the other titans both of his prior and subsequent eras, he has a particular unique ability to render Venice as a seductive and inviting place to visit. His artwork has perhaps done more to instil the vision of Venice in the popular imagination than any other artists and for that he rightly deserves his place as one of Italy’s most significant artists.


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