Born Giovanni Antonio Canale in Venice in October 1697, Canaletto, the son of theatrical scenery painter Bernardo Canale, was one of the world's most influential and prolific artists(having some 900 paintings attributed to him), and remains one of the most popular.
Canaletto, with his brother Christoforo, initially followed his father into theatrical painting, including work in Rome in 1719, where he was introduced to Gian Paolo Pannini's paintings of Roman city scenes. These proved to be a great influence on him. By 1723, Canaletto's output was dominated by accurate, almost photographic views (known as Vedute Esatte) of Venice featuring a startlingly convincing use of perspective. While the Paninni influence is clear, Canaletto took things to another level, as in the magical use of light in The Stonemason's Yard.
Many of Canaletto's early works were painted 'on-site'. This differed from the usual practice of drawing sketches and then later completing them in the studio1, though later in his career, a large workload compelled him to utilise the latter method. Success at a Venetian public exhibition brought his work to the attention of patrons such as the merchant Stefano Conti and the Imperial Ambassador to Venice, whose commissions were invaluable to Canaletto at the start of his career - partly because of the money but, more importantly, because they introduced his work to the English.
Thanks to painting during the peak of the Grand Tour2, Canaletto was in the right place at the right time. When young English gentlemen travelled the world (ostensibly to broaden their minds) they wanted some souvenirs to take home. As this was a long time before the instant camera, the only way to get a picture was to commission someone to paint one, and Canaletto's predominantly literal style meant that he was perfect for this type of work. It is thought that he received his first commission of this type from Owen McSwiney3, who also steered him in a direction more tailored to the Grand Tourists' requirements.
Through McSwiney, and later Joseph Smith4, much of Canaletto's work found its way into English collections5, leading to huge demand and the acquisition of an enviable reputation. He eventually had to employ assistants (including his nephew and probably his father) to help him keep up with the workload. One criticism of Canaletto is that much of his work is not his own but his assistants' completion6 of his sketches, many of which he is thought to have created with the aid of a camera obscura. Canaletto was certainly not alone in employing studio assistants; the quantity of work commissioned from the popular artists of the time would have been impossible for them to complete single-handed.
The tourist industry throughout Europe was hit hard by the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession, causing Canaletto's primary source of commissions to dry up. So he went off on a little tour of his own, eventually ending up in London in 1746. While there, Smith introduced him to, among others, the Duke of Richmond, who commissioned some of Canaletto's best works from this time. Many of his English works were vanity pieces, including several paintings of the aristocracy's country homes. Some of his London paintings, such as the stunning Ranelagh, Interior of the Rotunda, can be seen in London's National Gallery. But, even though these were impressive, his style had become formulaic and the glory years were gone. Canaletto returned to Venice in 1755 where he stagnated, although he finally gained recognition from the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts (The Accademia Veneziana di Pittura e Scultura), who elected him a member in 1763.
Canaletto died in poverty on 10 April, 1768, leaving a huge body of work and a fascinating pictorial record of 18th-Century Venice.