Painted views of towns and landscapes were enormously popular in the 18th century. Travelers to Italy eagerly sought accurate and detailed records of their visits to Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. Canaletto was the most famous painter of vedute (Italian for "views") at the time. His ability to capture the light, life, buildings, and expanse of Venice established his reputation as one of the greatest topographical painters of all time.
Canaletto was the son of Bernardo Canal, a painter of theater sets, with whom he worked and from whom he presumably learned the rules of perspective, so important for Canaletto's compositions. In 1719 Canaletto went to Rome, where he may have become familiar with the paintings of Giovanni Panini, an artist known for his Roman cityscapes and imaginary topographical views using actual landmarks as motifs. A year later Canaletto was back in Venice, attracting an international clientele, especially wealthy English patrons. This association, and the effects of the War of Austrian Succession, which greatly reduced the number of visitors to Venice, prompted Canaletto to travel to England, where he resided from 1746 until 1755. Canaletto’s works can be grouped into two major categories: topographic views depicting with extreme precision particular aspects of Venice and other European cities; and capricci, or imaginary views, in which architectural monuments have been displaced and rearranged according to the painter’s fancy. The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice, with the church of Santa Maria della Salute on the left, belongs in the first category.
Despite the self-defined limits of his subject matter, Canaletto was an extraordinarily brilliant artist who delicately enhanced his subject by carefully omitting selected details in order to focus on an essential image. His fine colors subtly combine all the hues associated with the real Venice as much as with the idea, or memory, of the city. Executed in his studio after studies from the motif, his paintings are, therefore, more than topographic records. They are pure, intellectual re-creations.