The 18th century witnessed a period where Europeans became fascinated with antiquity and the origins of Western culture. No Englishman of good breeding was considered fully educated unless he had traveled to Italy and taken a “grand tour” of Florence, Rome, and Venice. It was common for visitors to return with souvenirs and artwork, and few remembrances were more desirable than a painting by the Venetian landscape artist Giovanni Antonio Canal, who was called Canaletto to distinguish him from his father, who was also a scene painter.
Canaletto was accomplished at drawing and engraving but excelled at painting both fantastical landscapes and scenes from everyday life. The more realistic paintings of this prolific artist function as a detailed visual history of Venice when it was considered to be “the drawing room of Europe,” an opulent and decadent tourist destination.
During his lifetime, Canaletto’s work was generally dismissed by academicians (though he was finally admitted to the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts in 1763, five years before his death). His success was due in no small part to his acquaintance with Owen McSwiney, an Irishman who encouraged him to paint scenes that would appeal to British tourists, and Joseph Smith, an English art collector who eventually sold all of his Canalettos to King George III.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s exhibition “Venice in the Age of Canaletto” was inspired by the artist’s The Grand Canal from Campo di San Vio — a gift to the museum from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The exhibit surveys Venetian art in the 18th century and features work by Giambattista Tiepolo, Sebastiano Ricci, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Francesco Guardi, Bernardo Bellotto, and, of course, Canaletto. — Chris Davis