How Canaletto painted: 5 things to know

Canaletto | Il molo verso est con la colonna di S. Marco

Antonio Canal known as Canaletto, The Pier towards Riva degli Schiavoni with the Column of Saint Mark – Milan, Collection of Ancient Art and Pinacoteca of the Sforza Castle


How did Canaletto paint his perfect vedute (city views) almost similar to photographs?
This is the first question I asked myself when for the first time I was in front of a work by Canaletto.

At that time I was at Ca’Rezzonico, the Museum of the 18th-century Venice, and starting from this simple question, I began carrying out a research on the world of Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, the leading exponent of Vedutismo and who spread throughout the world an image of Venice still present in the collective consciousness.

How Canaletto painted

Canaletto | Il Canal Grande da Palazzo Balbi a Rialto

Antonio Canal known as Canaletto, Grand Canal Looking Northeast from the Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge – Venice, Ca’ Rezzonico, Museum of the 18th-century Venice


Canaletto was born in Venice on October 17th 1697 and his father Bernardo was a theatrical scene painter.
Since he was young, Canaletto learnt how to create stage decorations, and worked for stage shows, following his father’s job in Venice before and in Rome later.
It will be right his trip to Rome that would introduce him to Vedutismo (cityscape painting) and, back to Venice, he would establish contact with vedutisti (painters of vedute) Luca Carlevarijs and Marco Ricci, beginning to paint full time.


From a technical point of view, Canaletto’s paintings are the result of the composition of different perspectives.
However, the most important element of his work was the use of the camera obscura, a wooden box with a lens and a mirror which reflected the image on a surface where the artist put a sheet to trace the projected image.


The camera obscura was an instrument spread in the 18th century but known since the Renaissance,; however it was considered a stratagem used by those who couldn’t paint dal vero (in the open air) and who, through this means, could portray any landscape.
Canaletto actually used the camera obscura to capture each small detail and reproduce the depth of spaces. His aim was not to reproduce reality, like a photographer would do a century later; rather he wanted to create a “reality effect” in his paintings.

Canaletto | La chiesa e la scuola della Carità

Antonio Canal known as Canaletto, The Stonemason’s Yard (formally known as Campo San Vidal and Santa Maria della Carità) – London, The National Gallery


Thanks to his ability and technique, within a few years Canaletto became one of the most successful painter in Venice, but his fame spread far beyond the borders of his city.
His works entered the art collection of the sovereigns of Liechtenstein and of some important art dealers, but Joseph Smith was the decisive meeting, because that opened the doors of the rich English clientele to Canaletto.
Joseph Smith was a British art collector and diplomat who provided Canaletto with many and important commissions, leading the artist to move to England where he spent about ten years.


The last years of Canaletto’s life were characterized by success and recognition.
He painted some important works for the German art dealer Sigismund Streit and the subject to which he dedicated in this phase is the “capriccio”, a genre in which the artist combines real or imaginary architectural elements, where ruins of ancient times often appear rearranged.
In 1763 Canaletto was admitted to the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, the art academy of Venice.
He died in Venice on April 19th 1768.

Canaletto | Bacino di San Marco

Canaletto (Canal, Giovanni Antonio 1697-1768): Bacino di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basin), Venice. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

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6 thoughts on “How Canaletto painted: 5 things to know

    • The answer is not easy. Yes, he painted on wood but to know which wood he used you need to do research and in-depth and hope that someone has carried out in-depth technical analyzes.

    • It is difficult to determine how long it took him to create his works. Certainly a few weeks because he was precise in the inclusion of every detail.
      In those days, speed of execution was a must for afresco, but not for paintings on canvas and wood.

  1. I was at the Wallace collection today, and some canaletto paintings were signed Canaletto, while others were signed “studio of Canaletto”… couls anyone enlighten me on the difference? Did he have understudies painting for/with him?

    • All the artists had assistants and Canaletto had a group of collaborators to help him handle the many requests.
      Canaletto was not only an artist but a skilled entrepreneur and even had an exclusive agent in England who took care of selling his works.

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