Giovanni Antonio Canal was born in Venice on October 17 or 18, 1697 to a well-defined class in Venetian society, just below the ranks of the patrician nobility. His father, Bernardo Canal, was a painter of theatrical scenery and a view painter, and Canaletto appears to have assisted him at an early stage in the role of theater designer. In 1719-1720 he accompanied his father to Rome to execute scenes for two operas by Alessandro Scarlatti performed there during the Carnival of 1720. While in Rome, according to Anton Maria Zanetti, one of the artist's earliest biographers, the young man abandoned the theatre and began to draw and paint architectural views. Canaletto's name was inscribed for the first time in the register of the Venetian artists' guild in 1720, which suggests a date for the beginning of his career as pittor di vedute, or view painter. He adopted the diminutive Canaletto (the little Canal) by the mid-1720s, presumably to distinguish his work from his father's.
The first firm date in Canaletto's career must be regarded as 1725, when Alessandro Marchesini, a Veronese painter living in Venice, opened negotiations for a pair of large views for Stefano Conti of Lucca. Owen McSwiney, a bankrupt opera impresario living in Italy as an agent for various English noblemen in the commissioning of pictures, first introduced Canaletto to an English client, the Duke of Richmond, and in the late 1720s encouraged the artist to paint small topographical views of Venice with a commercial appeal for tourists and foreign visitors to the city. The years 1727-1730 were crucial to the development of Canaletto's career and witnessed the decisive change from his early theatrical views to a cooler appraisal of the familiar sights of Venice.
Sometime before 1728, Canaletto began his association with Joseph Smith, an English businessman and collector living in Venice, who was to become the artist's principal agent and patron. Smith eventually acquired nearly fifty paintings, one hundred fifty drawings, and fifteen rare etchings from Canaletto, the largest and finest single group of the artist's works, that he sold to King George III in 1763. The publication in 1735 of Antonio Visentini's engravings after twelve views of the Grand Canal (Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum), which Smith had commissioned from Canaletto around 1730, did much to arouse enthusiasm for the artist among the English, and during the next decade a large number of Canaletto's paintings entered English collections under Smith's auspices. The period between 1730 and 1742 was the most productive of Canaletto's career; it was in these years that almost all of the paintings of Venice by which he is best known were completed and during which he produced much of his best work. In this, the second period of his career, Canaletto's chief aim was to present an accurate and detailed record of a particular scene, and he captured the light, the life, and the buildings of Venice in these years with a perceptiveness and luminosity that established his reputation as one of the greatest topographical painters of all time.
The outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741 significantly disrupted the flow of foreign visitors to Venice, and the demand for Canaletto's work on the part of the English declined considerably. Joseph Smith encouraged the artist to devote more time to drawing and to take up etching, which formed a small but significant part of his artistic activity. After Smith's appointment as British Consul in Venice in 1744, a volume of Canaletto's etchings was published as Vedute altre prese da i luoghi altre ideate. In 1740 and 1741 Canaletto left Venice on a tour of the Brenta and the mainland and made a number of drawings on the spot which served as the source for paintings and particularly etchings which he produced in the studio upon his return. He was accompanied on this trip by Bernardo Bellotto, the son of his sister Fiorenza, who had been in his studio since about 1735 and must have played an increasing role in the production of the studio.
In 1746 Canaletto departed Venice for England where he worked for the next decade. A number of Venetian artists of the preceding generation had found success there, and Canaletto's name and work were widely known in the country, especially in aristocratic circles. No absolutely precise dates have been established for his stay in England; Canaletto returned briefly to Venice once during his English sojourn in 1750-1751, and he appears to have left permanently sometime after 1755. The impact which Canaletto made on English landscape and topographical painters lasted well into the following century.
In spite of Canaletto's success with the English and other foreign patrons, contemporary Venetians appear to have held his view painting in low esteem: none of his patrons was Venetian, and he was not elected to the Venetian academy until 1763, following a previous refusal. In the traditional view, Canaletto's paintings after 1756 seldom display the imagination and technical skill, the freshness and vitality of his earlier work. In fact, he produced pictures of high quality in his last years, like the architectural capriccio of the interior of the courtyard of a palace (Galleria Accademia, Venice), an exercise in perspective that he gave the Academy in 1765 as his reception piece. In August 1767 he attended a meeting of the Academy. Seven months later, on April 19, 1768, Canaletto died of inflammation of the bladder and was buried in Venice. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Millar, Oliver, and Charlotte Miller. Canaletto. Exh. cat. The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, 1982.
Corboz, André. Canaletto: Una Venezia immaginaria. Catalogue compiled by Anna Tortorelo. 2 vols. Milan, 1985.
Baetjer, Katharine, and J. G. Links. Canaletto. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1989.
Constable, W. G. Canaletto: Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768. 1962, 1976. Second edition revised by J. G. Links, reissued with supplement and additional plates. 2 vols. Oxford, 1989.
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 23-24.