7 Facts You May Not Know About Canaletto

EXHIBITION ON SCREEN opens its fifth season with Canaletto & the Art of Venice, an immersive journey into the life and art of Venice’s famous view-painter based on the current exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace; with extensive filming in Venice itself, all shot in Ultra HD 4K. No artist better captures the essence and allure of Venice than Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto.

Here are 7 facts you may not know about the man himself.

1.    He trained as a stage designer

Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, was born in Venice in 1697. He was the son of a painter of stage sets and initially followed in his father's footsteps making painted backdrops for Venice's thriving theatres. In the 1720s he abandoned this low status work and began producing the paintings for which he is most famous. Canaletto's view paintings of the city of Venice became hugely popular. He also made many hundreds of drawings, and experimented with etching.  

© Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

2.    His success was thanks to an English merchant and dealer

Canaletto enjoyed a long business partnership with Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice. Smith was a wealthy banker and trader who spotted Canaletto's potential and began marketing his paintings especially to English patrons on the Grand Tour. Smith acted as a go-between and agent for Canaletto for many years. Smith owned many of Canaletto's best paintings and drawings as well as works by other talented artists in Venice. Smith's impressive collection was sold to the young George III in 1762 and remains in the Royal Collection today.

3.     He had a reputation for being obstinate and unreliable

Collectors were desperate to obtain Canaletto's paintings, but he could be difficult to pin down and struggled with his vast workload. One gentleman at the time wrote in frustration, 'the fellow is whimsical, and varies his prices every day'. Joseph Smith was able to negotiate between artist and patron, allowing the painter to get on with his commissions. Canaletto also painted important series of Venice and Rome for Smith which he displayed in his residence on the Grand Canal.  

4.     He drew from a boat

The city of Venice is characterised by its many waterways and the only access to the city is by boat. While out and about in Venice, Canaletto took sketchbooks with him to make drawings of the architecture around him, adding notes to remind him of particular materials and colours. Many of these drawings would have been made from the wobbly position of a boat on the canal. He later used these sketches as the basis for more worked up drawings and paintings.

© Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

5.    The Venetians did not buy his art

It is rare to find a Canaletto in a major collection in Venice. Canaletto was painting for the foreign market and particularly for the British and the Venetians were not interested in acquiring his work. The British travelled to Venice in large numbers as part of their Grand Tour of the principal cities of Europe. Venice was unique for its art and architecture as well as its great cultural attractions – the opera, theatre performances, the carnival, public spectacles and festivals – and its gambling and its courtesans. Canaletto's views of the city were so well known in Britain that when visitors saw Venice for the first time they measured the city against Canaletto’s views.

6.    Canaletto's paintings are not accurate records of reality

Canaletto keenly observed Venice but then rearranged and altered elements to create ideal depictions of the city. He narrowed or opened out stretches of canal; he straightened curves and he eliminated less important buildings. As a development of this free approach to topography he painted capricci in which famous buildings were placed in picturesque settings, an important genre in eighteenth century Venetian art.

7.    Canaletto did not die a wealthy man

Despite the spectacular prices Canaletto’s paintings commanded, the inventory of his property at his death reveals modest sums of money and a sober existence: 28 unsold paintings, a small single bed with old bed-linen and covers, eight old shirts, six pairs of old white hose, five white nightcaps, four coats, three of them old and one of them dyed, two old pairs of breeches, two old waistcoats and two old hats; of his four cloaks, three were ‘old’ and one was ‘very old’. We know nothing of his private life. Yet his art revealed a constant renewal and experimentation, an optimism and a vitality and an awe-inspiring talent.

Exhibition on Screen: Canaletto & the Art of Venice plays on our screens from Tuesday 26th September.

You can see the exhibition the film is based on, Canaletto & the Art of Venice, at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 12 November 2017.