Francesco Guardi was born in Venice in 1712. Due to a lack of documentation and secure early works, his initial training and career remain the subject of intense speculation. It cannot be assumed that he was trained by his elder brother Antonio (1699-1761), who was too young to have inherited the family workshop upon the death of their father Domenico (1678-1716). Furthermore, the obvious differences in the brothers' styles go beyond a difference in temperament and indicate that Francesco was probably trained by another master. Yet, suggestions that he received this initial training in the family's native Trentino, in Vienna with a north-Italian painter, or in Venice remain highly speculative.
By about 1730 a Guardi family workshop was in existence in Venice: a will of 1731 refers to copies by the "fratelli Guardi." Because Francesco would have been only 18 at this time, it can be assumed that at first Antonio probably functioned as the head of the shop. It appears, however, that Francesco soon collaborated on and made independent contributions, primarily as a figure painter, to the shop's large projects. He also accepted independent commissions, as clearly indicated by two letters of 1750 in which he attempted to recover payment on sketches for unexecuted figure compositions. After Antonio's death in 1761, Francesco continued to work occasionally as a figure painter, but was active mainly as a painter of views and capricci.
Francesco's activity as a view painter probably grew out of the Guardi family practice of copying the works of other artists rather than from any formal training with another master and appears to have begun in the early to mid-1750s: none of his views can be dated before about 1754 based on topographical details. Francesco's earliest views, such as those in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, employ a style derived primarily from that of the mature Canaletto (1697-1768) and also Michele Marieschi (1710-1743). Francesco often borrowed entire compositions from paintings and prints by both artists, although he increasingly worked from his own drawings. The earliest view to bear both Francesco's signature and a date, 1758, is a Mardi Gras in the Piazzetta (Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 11 January 1990, no. 121). In comparison to the earlier views, this work shows a darkening and softening of Canaletto's cool hardness with atmospheric effects, reminiscent of Luca Carlevarijs (1663-1730), and looks forward to Francesco's style of the 1760s.
Like other view painters, Francesco also painted depictions of Venetian festivities and the architectural and landscape capricci so popular in the eighteenth century. Depictions of festivities, such as the Mardi Gras of 1758, and of events connected with the visits of foreign dignitaries are known from throughout Francesco's career. His first capricci, however, cannot be dated before the early 1760s on stylistic grounds. Like his first views, these capricci are derived from those of other artists, in this case Marco Ricci (1676-1729) and Luca Carlevarijs, and often adopt whole compositions or specific ruin and landscape elements from them.
After about 1770 Francesco's chronology becomes slightly more secure, and in the 1780's can be established around several documented commissions. In the 1770s, Francesco's brushwork became increasingly loose and fractured, and was combined with a softer, increasingly cool palette and subtle effects of changeant color that create a shimmering atmospheric veil across the surface of now smaller canvases. He also began to modify both the relative proportions of buildings and the perspectival recession for expressive effect. In his last years (c. 1780-1793) these developments continued, with still looser brushwork, more expressive manipulation of perspective, and renewed interest in chiaroscuro effects. During these years Francesco's son Giacomo (1764-1835) assumed a growing role in the production of views and capricci. After Francesco's death in Venice in 1793, Giacomo continued to produce paintings of inferior quality, which he often sold as his father's with false or ambiguous signatures.
Francesco's extremely prolific output seems to have been purchased mainly by middle-class Venetians and English visitors of modest means. Their recorded statements show an appreciation for Francesco's painterly brio and poetic vision, while others criticized these same qualities as poor technique and carelessness in the depiction of specific sites. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Haskell, Francis. "Francesco Guardi as Vedutista and some of his Patrons." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 23 (1960): 256-276.
Morassi, Antonio. Guardi. I Dipinti. 2 vols. Milan, 1973; second printing, 1984.
Binion, Alice. Antonio and Francesco Guardi. Their Life and Milieu with a Catalogue of their Figure Drawings. Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1971. Published New York, 1976.
Succi, Dario. "Francesco Guardi." In Capricci veneziani del settecento. Edited by Dario Succi. Exh. cat. Castello di Gorizia. Milan, 1988: 325-384.
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: 120-121.