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A do-it-yourself walk with the Godfather

Part 3: The life and times of Canaletto

Canaletto was born in 1699, so he is from the same age as Hogarth. He established an early reputation in Venice where his principal customers were the British who were on their Grand Tour pilgrimage. Canaletto’s anni mirabili were the 1720s and 1730s. The British were in love with Venice, Venetian art, and Venetian architecture, and this was the moment when the British had an insatiable appetite for aesthetic experience. They bought old masters in great quantities, had an enthusiasm for contemporary Venetian artists such as Sebastiano Ricci and Pellegrini, and built country houses in the style of Palladio.

Canaletto was thus in the right place at the right time. What better souvenir of Venice and the Grand Tour could there be than one of Canaletto’s paintings? His market and business potential were exploited by two Englishmen who were resident in Venice - Owen MacSwinny an exiled theatre impresario, and the English diplomat known as Consul (Joseph) Smith. Both of them introduced English patrons of high rank to Canaletto and dealt with business matters such as collecting fees, shipping the pictures to England, and smoothing the relationships between patrons and artist when things went wrong - which they often did.

This flourishing export trade explains why, if you wish to see Canaletto’s work at its best you should not go to Venice but stay at home and visit our public galleries, country houses, and the Royal Collection. George III did not go to Venice but when Consul Smith got into financial difficulties in the 1760s and was forced to sell his collection George III snapped it up.

However by the end of the 1730s Canaletto’s Venetian career began to falter. He was the victim of two circumstances - fashion and war. In the first place Venetian art appealed less and less to English collectors. Perhaps they had simply had too much of it, or wanted change, and by mid century taste was turning away form the picturesque and decorative towards something more heavy weight - Rococo frivolity was being booted out by neo-classical gravitas. Also, the shadow of War fell across Europe. 28-year-old Frederick of Prussia picked a quarrel with his neighbour Maria Theresa of Austria. France and Britain were drawn into the dispute. Travelling around Europe became inadvisable and the flow of Grand Tourists diminished. The upshot was that Venice had fewer visitors, and Canaletto had fewer commissions. He had problems. He needed new markets, and fresh inspiration.

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