Bernardo Bellotto is believed to have been born in Venice on 20 May 1722 to Fiorenza Domenica Canal and Lorenzo Bellotto. The artist's traditional birthdate, 30 January 1721, is evidently that of his elder brother Michiel Bernardo Antonio Eugenio, according to documentation cited in Bozena Anna Kowalczyk, "Il Bellotto veneziano nei documenti," Arte Veneta 47 (1995):69-77. The painter's given names are recorded in a baptismal document in the Archivio della Curia Patriacale, Venice, as Bernardo Francesco Paolo Ernesto.
Bellotto's mother was the eldest of the three sisters of the Venetian vedutista Antonio Canaletto, and Bellotto entered his uncle's Venetian studio for training as a view painter around 1735. During this apprenticeship, which lasted until the early 1740s, he assimilated so thoroughly the manner of Canaletto's methods and style--a phenomenon remarked by their contemporaries--that the problem of attributing works from this period to one painter or the other continues to the present day.
Bellotto was enrolled as early as 1738 in the register of the Fraglia dei Pittori, the Venetian painter's guild, which suggests that by then he had developed into an independent painter, draftsman, and etcher. By 1740 he was capable of faultless perspective drawing, and he had produced several independent oil paintings of Venetian scenes. In the years 1740-1741, Bellotto accompanied his uncle on a visit to the neighboring mainland along the Brenta to Padua, and on this trip he attained his majority as an artist. For several months in 1742 Bellotto travelled in central Italy visiting Florence, Lucca, and Rome. The paintings produced during this time anticipate his distinctive mature style and eventual divergence from the manner of Canaletto.
Bellotto probably returned to Venice before the end of 1742; he was certainly there in 1743. From 1744 onwards, before his departure for Dresden in the summer of 1747, he spent months at a time in Lombardy, Piedmont, and Verona, where he executed a large number of paintings of new subjects. During this period he began to take an interest in the surroundings of towns and in landscape, which had previously played a minor role in his work. The most important of Bellotto's Italian works are generally thought to be two views of the village of Gazzada near Varese (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). In 1745 Bellotto executed two views of Turin for Charles Emmanuel III, King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy. They were his first royal commissions, and he signed them with both his Christian name and surname and the byname "Il Canaletto," no doubt to draw attention to his relationship with his celebrated uncle.
In July 1747, in response to a summons to the court of Dresden, he left Venice forever. From the moment of his arrival until the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, Bellotto was engaged in the service of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony (and as Augustus III, King of Poland) and of his powerful Prime Minister, Count Heinrich von Brühl. In 1748 the title of Court Painter was officially conferred on the artist, and his annual salary was the highest ever paid by Augustus II to a painter. Between 1747 and the first months of 1753, Bellotto painted fourteen large panoramic views of Dresden, and between 1753 and 1756, eleven views of the suburb of Pirna. These twenty-five paintings are among the painter's most significant works. In these paintings Bellotto developed a highly original style impossible to confuse with that of his uncle.
A new phase was ushered in with Bellotto's move to Vienna in the winter of 1758-1759, where he remained until early in 1761. The thirteen large canvases recording the principal attractions of Vienna, painted for Empress Maria Theresa and emphasizing her palaces and those constructed at her behest, constitute his second great series devoted to the portrayal of a single city and its immediate environment. Following his departure from Vienna in early 1761, Bellotto visited the court of Elector Maximilian III Joseph of Bavaria in Munich before returning to Dresden shortly before the end of the year.
Bellotto's second period of residence in Dresden, 1761-1766, was marked by financial difficulties caused by the destruction of his home in Pirna during the war, the deaths of Augustus III and Count Brühl within a few months of each other in 1763, and a change in the direction of the artistic affairs of the Saxon court in favor of native artists. In order to eke out a living Bellotto served as the equivalent of a tutor in perspective at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, recently established in 1764, and he made and sold prints. He also produced a large number of replicas of his earlier views of Pirna, Köningstein, Vienna, and Munich, most of them in reduced formats. The high technical standard of some indicate that they were painted entirely by his own hand; many others were completed with the assistance of members of his studio, notably his son Lorenzo. Bellotto also produced two unusual views of war-torn Dresden, and large numbers of capriccios and vedute ideate.
In December 1766, Bellotto and his son left Dresden with the intention of travelling to St. Petersburg and working for the Empress of Russia, Catherine II. He arrived in Warsaw probably before the end of January 1767 and was immediately offered employment at the court of the last king of Poland, Stanislaus II August Poniatowski. He was appointed Court Painter in 1768, and spent the last fourteen years of his life in working for the king in relative comfort and security. His most important work from this period is a series of twenty-six views of Warsaw, intended for a particular suite, the so-called "Canaletto Hall," in the Royal Castle. These views, with their extraordinary topographical precision and scrupulous attention to detail, played an important role in the reconstruction of Warsaw following the Second World War. Bellotto also produced, together with his son, an extraordinary amount of work for the royal residences at Ujazdów and Lazienki, on the outskirts of the city. He died in Warsaw on November 17, 1780. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Kozakiewicz, Stefan. Bernardo Bellotto. Translated by Mary Whittall. 2 vols. New York, 1972.
Bernardo Bellotto: La Vedute de Dresda. Exh. cat. Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, 1986.
Bellotto: Verona e la città europee. Exh. cat. Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, 1990.
Rizzi, Alberto. La Varsavia di Bellotto. Milan, 1990.
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: 7-9.