Giovanni Antonio Canaletto Biography

Giovanni Antonio CanalettoBefore the camera was invented, painters could make a decent living selling realistic or slightly idealized images of popular tourist destinations. People like to remember the places they've traveled, and have the proof of their travels to show off to their friends. In the 1700s, Giovanni Antonio Canaletto was able to take this tourist wish and turn it into high art. Canaletto churned out hundreds of scenic landscape paintings during his lifetime, mastering the use of perspective. His work also set the stage for later Impressionist painters.

Youth and Development

Giovanni Antonio Canal was born in 1697 into a family of painters. His father, Barnardo Canal, was an accomplished painter of theatrical sets and scenes. The young Canaletto often helped his father with his work, including assisting with painting scenes in 1720 for an opera by Scarlatti.

While Canaletto, by all accounts, enjoyed working with his father and likely learned a great deal about the use of perspective and realistic detail while he was making theatrical sets, the painter in Canaletto longed to do something different. In 1719, after visiting Rome, Giovanni Antonio Canaletto decided to change careers, work for himself, and become a commercial landscape painter.

Venetian Landscapes

Giovanni Antonio Canal's first move was to change his name, to distinguish his Canaletto paintings from those of his father. He would, from this point, be known as "Canaletto," or "Little Canal," to distinguish himself. Canaletto began studying with another landscape artist, Luca Carlevaris, and quickly learned to outpaint his teacher. When a wealthy patron asked his agent for two landscapes of Venice, the agent told him, to look for work by Canaletto, as "It is like Carlevaris, but you can see the sun shining in it."

These commissions weren't rare in Canaletto's time and many more would follow. Venice was, as it is now, a popular tourist destination, particularly for the English. These tourists were so enamored with the interplay of water, light, antique buildings and colorfully dressed people that they would pay great amounts for well-executed paintings they could take home. And Canaletto paintings of this period are uniquely designed to fit this market.

The Stonemason's Yard, completed in 1729 and one of many paintings by Canaletto in the National Gallery in London, depicts a working class portion of the city. Workers both on land and in the water toil away in the center of the image. The buildings on either side of the painting are filled with people doing laundry and watering plants. The beautiful buildings of Venice recede in the distance.

The Canaletto Grand Canal and the Church of Salute painting from 1730 once again uses perspective to great effect, allowing the river and the buildings to recede to a perfect vanishing point in the center of the painting. The colors here are bright and cheerful, under a perfect blue sky. This is an image a tourist would gladly hang on his wall back home in dreary England, to remind him of sunnier times.

Canalettos were often executed outside through direct observation. This was a truly novel technique, as artists of this time were more likely to create sketches of a scene and complete the works in the studio. Canaletto preferred to work outside, in direct view of his subject. This puts Canaletto squarely in line with the Impressionist painters who came later, who also preferred to work outdoors rather than in their studios. Canaletto's use of bright, luminous color with very little, if any, shading also would reappear in Impressionist paintings.

Canaletto's fame grew around 1728, when he began a long-time association with the English businessman Joseph Smith, who became Canaletto's agent. Smith would help sell Canaletto paintings and etchings. In fact, Smith bought many paintings himself, and later sold them to the British royal family, explaining why there is so much of Canaletto in the National Gallery in London. In the 1740s, the War of the Austrian Succession halted the flow of tourists from England to Venice, and Canaletto's income began to suffer. As a result, Canaletto moved to England to be closer to his buyers. This would prove a disastrous move for Canaletto painting.

English Landscapes

Giovanni Antonio Canaletto moved to London in 1746 and attempted to bring the same sense of color and joy into this new landscape. The results of his work are decidedly mixed; paintings from this later period tend to be less valuable than Canaletto's previous work.

Canaletto's Northumberland House painted in 1752 depicts a decidedly English landscape with the multipaned windows on the buildings forming horizontal lines for his use of perspective. This perspective isn't executed with Canaletto's normal precision. The buildings on the left seem to curve and sway. Many people are again visible in the center of the image, but their clothing is drab and their actions uncertain.

Canaletto's Westminster Bridge from 1746 shows a lively river scene, crowded with boats of all types and sizes. Smoke pours from some ships, while others sprout layers and layers of oars. The ships, however, have no shadows and appear to sit on top of the water in an unrealistic manner. The bridge also contains some perspective errors, and wobbles on the edges.

Canaletto's buyers noticed these changes. The paintings began to feel mechanical and formulaic. In fact, one prominent art critic suggested that they weren't being painted by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto himself, but by some imposter. Canaletto retaliated by generating a painting in full view of his detractors, but his reputation suffered a large blow from this suggestion of fraud, and he never truly recovered his commercial success.


In 1755, Canaletto returned to Venice and became a member of the Venetian academy in 1763. He continued to paint during this time, but often worked from sketches he brought home and completed in his studio. Canaletto began to experiment here, and he often changed details of the scenes he was painting to suit his artistic vision. Canaletto died in 1768 from a bladder inflammation and was buried in Venice.