The reconstruction of Gian Antonio Guardi's biography and oeuvre present difficulties to modern historians for two reasons. First, he is not the subject of significant comment in the copious critical and biographical literature of his time. Second, his artistic personality has often been confused with that of his widely celebrated younger brother, Francesco (1712-1793).
Antonio was descended from a family that was ennobled by the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand III in 1643. His forbears moved between Vienna and the Italian province of Trent, pursuing artistic, military, and ecclesiastical careers. This family background is necessary to understand Antonio's later patronage, which mainly originated in military and ecclesiastical circles, most often Austrian or north Italian. Antonio kept close ties to his native province. Indeed, most of his major works were produced for churches in the north of Italy, on occasion at the behest of ecclesiastic members of his own family.
Antonio's father Domenico was also a painter resident in Austria. Domenico must have had some links with painters of the Venetian school, since the Venetian artist Antonio Bellucci was present at Antonio's baptism in Vienna on May 27, 1699. Some time before 1702, the family moved to Venice, where Domenico was registered in the painter's guild in the year 1715.
Antonio's first signed and dated painting (St. John Nepomuk, present location unknown, ex-Cogo collection, Treviso), is dated 1717, the year after his father's death. However, whether this work can be taken as a sign that Antonio was already then, at the age of eighteen, a practicing professional and master of a workshop is under dispute. It has also been suggested that he was trained in Vienna, where he was documented in 1719, and then returned to Venice. It has also been suggested that Antonio was trained by Sebastiano Ricci, but the documentation for this is contested. In any case, the crucial period from 1719 to 1730 remains a complete blank.
From 1730 onwards, however, Antonio's activities are better known. From that year until 1746, he is documented as the avid collector Fieldmarshall Schulenburg's "pittor di casa," charged mainly with providing copies of works by other artists such as Tintoretto, Ricci, and Piazzetta. While working for Schulenburg, Antonio served such other Venetian families as the Donà and the Giovanelli (the latter family from the Guardis' native province). In this period, he also furnished religious paintings for smaller towns in North Italy, such as the lunettes for the parish church in Vigo d'Anaunia. Significantly, these lunettes were commissioned by the parish priest, who was his uncle. More often than not the compositions of Antonio's works depend heavily on models selected from the works of eminent Venetian and foreign artists.
The fact that Francesco's style often closely imitates Antonio's has complicated efforts to distinguish between the work of the two brothers. Visual evidence, and documentation which may indicate that the brothers worked together, have led some scholars to assume that they had a family workshop. However, other scholars forcibly discount the possibility of any collaboration between the two brothers. Antonio was elected a founding member of the Venetian Academy in 1751 (he was nominated by his brother in law, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo). He died in Venice in 1761, and was all but forgotten until the early twentieth century. However, his works are now generally considered among the fullest expressions of the European rococo. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Binion, Alice. The Drawings of Antonio and Francesco Guardi. New York and Chicago, 1967.
Mahon, Denis. "The Brothers at the Mostra dei Guardi: some impressions of a neophyte." In Problemi guardeschi. Atti del convegno di studi promossi della Mostra dei Guardi 13-14 Settembre 1965. Venice, 1967: 5-198.
Morassi, Antonio. Guardi: I Dipinti. 2 vols. Venice, 1974.
Pedrocco, Filippo, and Federico Montecuccoli degli Erri. Antonio Guardi. Milan, 1992.
Merling, Mitchell. In Martineau, Jane, and Andrew Robison, eds. The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century. New Haven, 1994.
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: 145-146.