Pietro Longhi was born in 1702 in Venice, the son of Alessandro Falca, a silversmith. He studied drawing and modelling with his father, and for his initial training as a painter he was apprenticed to Antonio Balestra until the end of 1718. In the 1720s and 1730s Longhi received a number of public commissions for large-scale religious pictures in Venice which remain mostly untraced. An altarpiece of 1732 in the parish church of San Pellegrino reveals the strong influence of Balestra.
Longhi's frescoes completed in 1734 depicting the Fall of the Giants above the principal staircase in the Ca' Sagredo, Venice, reveal his limited talent for history painting on a large scale, and it may have been the disastrous critical reception of this commission that led to his dramatic shift toward genre paintings of contemporary life. His earliest identifiable genre works consist of pastoral motifs and peasant interiors on small canvases that appear to date from the mid-1730s. In their handling, subject matter, and naturalistic detail these works owe a debt to north Italian and Bolognese low-life and rustic painting, particularly the work of Giuseppe Maria Crespi, in whose studio Longhi is said to have studied, although the date of a visit to Bologna and activities there are not documented. Whether he actually studied with Crespi is doubtful.
Longhi's development as a painter in the 1730s remains unclear, but a concert scene dated 1741 in the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, shows his inventive approach to genre painting already fully developed. In his Abecedario pittorico of 1753, Pietro Orlandi lauded Longhi's "new and individual style of painting conversation pieces, games, ridotti, masquerades, parlors, all on a small scale and with such veracity and color that at a glance it was easy to recognize the places and people portrayed." For such paintings, he adopted the simple format or a shallow, windowless stage, and he restricted his compositions to relatively few figures in restrained poses. His soft, delicate brushwork is reminiscent of that of Jacopo Amigoni (1682-1752) and his palette reveals the influence of the pastels of Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757).
In addition to his Venetian contemporaries and the realists of Bergamo, Brescia, and Bologna, several other sources influenced Longhi's development. First noted by P. J. Mariette in the eighteenth century, Longhi's rapport with contemporary French painting has long been observed, and engravings of and after Lancret, Mercier, Pater, de Troy, and Watteau are cited among the models for his genre style. Other writers have sought sources for his style in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting, which was to be seen in Venice at the period. Contemporary references to Longhi as the creator of "speaking caricatures" led inevitably to the comparison of his genre paintings with the graphic work of Hogarth, readily available in Venetian printshops by 1740, although Longhi's conversation pieces lacked the same satirical intention.
Longhi's great pictorial sensibility and delicate sense of humor and his selective and careful depictions of contemporary Venetian life brought him immediate success. Longhi's felicitous rendering of Venetian life proved especially popular within a restricted element of Venetian patrician society, and he is recorded as working for the Emo, Grimani, Pisani, Querini, Rezzonico, and Sagredo families. A clue to the contemporary reception of his work is given by a Venetian journalist, Gaspare Gozzi, who admired Longhi because "he portrays in his canvases what he sees with his own eyes" in contrast to the history painters who paint "figures dressed in ancient fashion and characters of fancy."
Between 1740 and the mid-1750s Longhi's iconographic repertory focused primarily on conversation pieces; thereafter he widened his practice to include out-of-doors subjects like hunting parties and portraits. The outstanding works of Longhi's career are seven paintings of the Sacraments made in the early 1750s for the Querini family (Galleria Querini Stampalia, Venice). Longhi occasionally painted more than one version of his own compositions, but more often his works were duplicated by pupils and followers. He developed his compositions with painstaking care, and he produced numerous drawings for the figures and other details in his paintings.
In 1737 Longhi was elected to membership in the Fraglia, the Venetian guild of painters in which he remained active until 1773. He was a founding member of the local academy of painters in 1756, instructor for its life classes until 1780, and a director from 1763-1766 of a private academy founded by the Pisani family. Longhi's son, Alessandro (1733-1813), was also a painter and is best known for his portraits. Longhi died on May 8, 1785 in the house in the quarter of San Rocco in Venice where he had lived since 1740. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Longhi, Alessandro. Compendio delle Vite dei pittori veneziani istorici più rinomati del presente secolo.... Venice, -1762.
Pignatti, Terisio. Pietro Longhi: Paintings and Drawings. Translated by Pamela Waley. London, 1969 (Italian edition: Venice, 1968).
Pignatti, Terisio. Pietro Longhi dal disegno alla pittura. Venice, 1975.
Spike, John T. Giuseppe Maria Crespi and the Emergence of Genre Painting in Italy. Exh. cat. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1986.
Pignatti, Terisio. Disegni di Pietro Longhi. Milan, 1990.
Mariuz, Adriano, Giuseppe Pavanello, and Giandomenico Romanelli. Pietro Longhi. Exh. cat. Museo Correr, Venice, 1993.
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: 170-171.