Venetian Painting – Canale

WHILE Piazetta and Tiepolo were proving themselves the inheritors of the great school of decorators, Venice herself was finding her chroniclers, and a school of landscape arose, of which Canale was the foremost member. Giovanni Antonio Canale was born in Venice in 1697, the same year as Tiepolo. His father earned his living at the profession, lucrative enough just then, of scene-painting, and Antonio learned to handle his brush, working at his side. In 1719 he went off to seek his fortune in Rome, and though he was obliged to help out his resources by his early trade, he was most concerned in the study of architecture, ancient and modern. Rome spoke to him through the eye, by the picturesque masses of stonework, the warm harmonious tones of classic remains and the effects of light upon them. He painted almost entirely out-of-doors, and has left many examples drawn from the ruins. His success in Rome was not remarkable, and he was still a very young man when he retraced his steps. On regaining his native town, he realised for the first time the beauty of its canals and palaces, and he never again wavered in his allegiance.

Two rivals were already in the field, Luca Carlevaris, whose works were freely bought by the rich Venetians, and Marco Ricci, the figures in whose views of Venice were often touched in by his uncle, Sebastiano ; but Canale’s growing fame soon dethroned them, ” i cacciati del nido,” as he said, using Dante’s expression. In a generation full of caprice, delighting in sensational developments, Canale was methodical to a fault, and worked steadily, calmly producing every detail of Venetian landscape with untiring application and almost monotonous tranquillity. He lived in the midst of a band of painters who adored travel. Sebastiano Ricci was always on the move ; Tiepolo spent much of his time in other cities and countries, and passed the last years of his life in Spain ; Pietro Rotari was attached to the Court of St. Petersburg ; Belotto, Canale’s nephew, settled in Bohemia ; but Canale remained at home, and, except for two short visits paid to England, contented himself with trips to Padua and Verona.

Early in life Canale entered into relations with Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice, a connoisseur who had not only formed a fine collection of pictures, but had a gallery from which he was very ready to sell to travellers.

He bought of the young Venetian at a very low price, and contrived, unfairly enough, to acquire the right to all his work for a certain period of time, with the object of sending it, at a good profit, to London. For a time Canale’s luminous views were bought by the English under these auspices, but the artist, presently discovering that he was making a bad bargain, came over to England, where he met with an encouraging reception, especially at Windsor Castle and from the Duke of Richmond. Canale spent two years in England and painted on the Thames and at Cambridge, but he could not stand the English climate and. fled from the damp and fogs to his own lagoons.

To describe his paintings is to describe Venice at every hour of the day and night—Venice with its long array of noble palaces, with its Grand Canal and its narrow, picturesque waterways. He reproduces the Venice we know, and we see how little it has changed. The gondolas cluster round the landing-stages of the Piazzetta, the crowds hurry in and out of the arcades of the Ducal Palace, or he paints the festivals that still retained their splendour : the Great Bucentaur leaving the Riva dei Schiavoni on the Feast of the Ascension, or San Geremia and the entrance to the Canareggio decked in flags for a feast-day. From one end to another of the Grand Canal, that “most beautiful street in the world,” as des Commines called it in 1495, we can trace every aspect of Canale’s time, when the city had as yet lost nothing of its splendour or its animation. At the entrance stands S. Maria della Salute, that sanctuary dear to Venetian hearts, built as a votive offering after the visitation of the plague in 1631. Its flamboyant dome, with its volutes, its population of stone saints, its green bronze door catching the light, pleased Canale, as it pleased Sargent in our own day, and he painted it over and over again. The annual fête of the Confraternity of the Carità takes place at the Scuola di San Rocco, and Canale paints the old Renaissance building which shelters so much of Tintoretto’s finest work, decorated with ropes of greenery and gay with flags,’ while Tiepolo has put in the red-robed, periwigged councillors and the gazing populace. Near it in the National Gallery hangs a Regatta” with its array of boats, its shouting gondoliers, and its shadows lying across the range of palaces, and telling the exact hour of the day that it was sketched in ; or, again, the painter has taken peculiar pleasure in expressing quiet days, with calm green waters and wide empty piazzas, divided by sun and shadow, with a few citizens plodding about their business in the hot midday, or a quiet little abbé crossing the piazza on his way to Mass. Canale has made a special study of the light on wall and façade, and of the transparent waters of the canals and the azure skies in which float great snowy fleeces.

His second visit to England was paid in 1751. He was received with open arms by the great world, and invited to the houses of the nobility in town and country. The English were delighted with his taste and with the mastery with which he painted architectural scenes, and in spite of advancing years he produced a number of compositions, which commanded high prices. The Garden of Vauxhall, the Rotunda at Ranelagh, Whitehall, Northumberland House, Eton College, were some of the subjects which attracted him, and the treatment of which was signalised by his calm and perfect balance. He made use of the camera ottica, which is in principal identical with the camera oscura. Lanzi says he amended its defects and taught its proper use, but it must be confessed that in the careful perspective of some of his scenes, its traces seem to haunt us and to convey a certain cold regularity. Canale was a marvellous engraver. Mantegna, Bellini, and Titian had placed engraving on a very high level in the Venetian School, and though at a later date it became too elaborate, Tiepolo and his son brought it back to simplicity. Canale aided them, and his eaux fortes, of which he has left about thirty, are filled with light and breadth of treatment, and he is particularly happy in his brilliant, transparent water.

The high prices Canale obtained for his pictures in his lifetime led to the usual imitations. He was surrounded by painters whose whole ambition was limited to copying him. Among these were Marieschi, Visentini, Colombini, besides others now forgotten. More than fifty of his finest works were bought by Smith for George III. and fill a room at Windsor. He was made a member of the Academy at Dresden, and Bruhl, the Prime Minister of the Elector, obtained from him twenty-one works which now adorn the gallery there. Canale died in Venice, where he had lived nearly all his life, and where his gondola-studio was a familiar object in the Piazzetta, at the Lido, or anchored in the long canals.

His nephew, Bernardo Belotto, is often also called Canaletto, and it seems that both uncle and nephew were equally known by the diminutive. Belotto, too, went to Rome early in his career, where he attached himself to Panini, a painter of classic ruins, peopled with warriors and shepherds. He was, by all accounts, full of vanity and self-importance, and on a visit to Germany managed to acquire the title of Count, which he adhered to with great complacency. He travelled all over Italy looking for patronage, and was very eager to find the road to success and fortune. About the same time as his uncle, he paid a visit to London and was patronised by Horace Walpole, but in the full tide of success he was summoned to Dresden, where the Elector, disappointed at not having secured the services of the uncle, was fain to console himself with those of the nephew. The extravagant and profligate Augustus II., whose one idea was to extract money by every possible means from his subjects, in order to adorn his palaces, was consistently devoted to Belotto, who was in his element as a Court painter. He paints all his uncle’s subjects, and it is not always easy to distinguish between the two ; but his paintings are dull and stiff as compared with those of Canale, though he is sometimes fine in colour, and many of his views are admirably drawn.


It is impossible to draw up any exhaustive list, so many being in private collections.

Dresden. The Grand Canal ; Campo S. Giacomo ; Piazza S. Marco ; Church and Piazza of SS. Giovanni and Paolo.

Florence. The Piazzetta.

Hampton Court. The Colosseum.

London. Scuola di San Rocco ; Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh ; S. Pietro in Castello, Venice.

Paris. Louvre : Church of S. Maria della Salute.

Venice. Heading ; Courtyard of a Palace.

Vienna. Liechtenstein Gallery : Church and Piazza of S. Mark, Venice ; Canal of the Giudecca, Venice ; View on Grand Canal ; The Piazzetta.

Windsor. About fifty paintings.

Wallace Collection. The Giudecca ; Piazza San Marco; Church of San Simione; S. Maria della Salute; A Fête on the Grand Canal ; Ducal Palace ; Dogana from the Molo ; Palazzo Corner ; A Water-fête ; The Rialto ; S. Maria della Salute ; A Canal in Venice.