Artwork Analysis View of Venice by Canaletto

There was no subject more familiar (or more painted) by Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768) than Venice. The artist, better known as Canaletto, endeavored to capture the city’s famous sites, its canals, in a distinctive Neoclassical style, quite unusual for the Baroque period in which he worked.

His work, “View of Venice” (also known as “Grand Canal Looking Northeast from Palazzo Balbi toward the Rialto”) was unlike many of his other paintings of the canals in that it features a dark, foreboding skyline, with deep shadows from some of the waterfront buildings. Typically Canaletto’s artwork featured azure blue skies that easily consume at least half of the painting.

Canaletto and “vendute”

Canaletto is most famous for his landscapes, known as “vendute” or view paintings. Coached by his theater scene painter father and inspired by vendutista Giovanni Paolo Pannini, the artist went to study under Luca Carlevarjis, but soon it was clear that Canaletto’s skills far outshone his Master.

He continued to pursue his love of Venice through his painting, capturing the scenes of the city, most frequently from the water. While his earlier works of art, such as “View of Venice” were marked by a somber tone, he soon found that patrons much preferred sunny blue skies.

Canaletto’s effective use of color and atmospheric effects are said by some to have foreshadowed Impressionism. This can particularly be seen in “View of Venice,” in which his grey skies give a less succinct view, where color has muddled the scene (unlike the sharpness found in later, sunnier works, such as “Entrance to the Grand Canal, Looking West, with Santa Maria della Salute” done in 1729).

Painting style of Canaletto

Also like the Impressionists who were to follow, Canaletto rejected painting in the studio. He often painted outdoors (as the Impressionists called it “en plein-air”). He is said to also have employed a camera obscura, a precursor of photography, which allowed artists to draw projected images (albeit upside down).

This process preserved the notion of perspective, but tended to create indistinct figures at a distance, something that can be clearly seen in Canaletto paintings, which again invites comparison to Impressionism.

Patrons from the Grand Tour

The Baroque age in which Canaletto painted was also the golden age of the Grand Tour. This was the exploration of Europe by the upper class gentlemen, particularly from England. Not only was it an educational lesson in the fine arts, it allowed these young men to gather artistic treasures that they would then use to furnish their homes, both in London and in their massive country estates.

Canaletto’s works of Venice were particularly popular, and he soon found an agent in Englishman Joseph Smith, who later became the British Consul in Venice. In the mid-1740s, Caneletto went to London to paint and be closer to his market. Among his early works there was “Westminster Bridge” (1746), which is not unlike “View of Venice” (1720-1723) in its grey overtones and bleak mood. Although the London painting features blue skies, the mottled grey water and buildings are reminiscent of the stormy mood in “View of Venice.”

Canaletto’s “View of Venice” mirrors much of his landscape artwork. Featuring a scene of canal life in Venice, what distinguished this early work is its somber tone and brooding mood, so unlike the Canaletto paintings for which he is best known.