(b. 1712, Venezia, d. 1793, Venezia)
Italian painter, the best-known member of a family of artists. He is now famous for his views of Venice, indeed next to Canaletto he is the most celebrated view painter of the 18th century, but he produced work on a great variety of subjects and seems to have concentrated on views only after the death of his brother Gianantonio (1699-1760). Until then Francesco's personality was largely submerged in the family studio, of which Gianantonio was head and which handled commissions of every kind.
The last of the great Venetian vedutisti, Francesco Guardi has achieved recognition only in the 20th century. In comparison to Canaletto and Bellotto, Guardi distinguished himself by a very liberal concept of the cityscape. He did not strive to represent each object accurately and minutely, choosing instead to emphasize the general mood and atmosphere of the scene. This holds true not only for his capriccios, but also for his cityscapes. This subjective approach held out little appeal for those who bought vedute in the eighteenth century, a substantial number of whom were foreigners and preferred the exact, almost photographic views of Canaletto and Bellotto. It was only much later that Guardi's painterly qualities came to be valued.
Francesco Guardi came from a family of painters. His father and his brothers Gian Antonio and Niccolò practiced the profession. His sister Maria Cecilia married the famous Venetian history painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1719. Francesco did not learn the profession from his father, who had died when the boy was four years old, but possibly in the studio of his thirteen-year-older brother Gian Antonio. Together with his brother Francesco set up a family studio probably in the early 1730s. Only recently there is some clarity about the oeuvre of Gian Antonio. Whereas solely history paintings are attributed to Gian Antonio, Francesco devoted himself, in any case from the end of the 1750s, to painting townscapes and capriccios.
Concerning the life of Francesco Guardi there is little documentation available. Most of the large number of paintings attributed to him can not be dated with certainty. There has accordingly been a good deal of speculation on questions of chronology and stylistic development in his work, one contentious area being the precise moment at which Francesco began painting veduta, and his motives for doing so. Given the fact that the first year Guardi's name appears in the registers of the Venetian painters guild is 1761, it has been assumed that he took over the leadership of the family studio following the death of Gian Antonio the previous year, and that this period also witnessed his first incursions into the genre of cityscapes. It would appear more plausible that, alongside history pieces, Francesco also executed town views in his elder brother's studio. Vedute by Guardi's hand cannot, however, be dated before the second half of the 1750s.
Since the first monograph on Francesco Guardi in 1904, Guardi was thought to have been a pupil of Canaletto. Nowadays it is generally assumed that Guardi did not actually study with Canaletto, but only learned to paint vedute after the old masters death by imitating the latter's works.
On the basis of a signed and dated painting from 1756 one scholar recently hypothesized that in his earliest vedute Guardi based himself on the style of Canaletto's work from the same time. This painting shows a carefully constructed compositional scheme with a highly exaggerated perspective, powerful light and colour effects and figures which are assigned a subordinate, purely decorative role. If this was indeed one of Guardi's earliest vedute, the painter did not follow Canaletto's late style for long; a number of works that can be dated approximately 1760 are characterized by a dark palette, turbulent skies and a charged atmosphere, characteristics that are far more reminiscent of Canaletto's views of the 1720s and 1730s.
In the 1760s Guardi introduced the Venetian Lagoon as a theme in view painting. Lagoon views and capriccios based on them were to remain an important part of his work. In the same decade his style underwent a change that was primarily expressed in a new preference for stark contrasts of light and shade. Canaletto's work would remain important to Guardi, however, as regards the subject-matter and composition of his town views. Guardi not infrequently took as his point of departure compositions or individual motifs from the paintings of Canaletto or from prints after his work.
Guardi produced his most personal work in the last twenty years of his life. Every attempt to reproduce the cityscape exactly has been abandoned. Linear perspective, that rules supreme in the work of Canaletto and above all that of Bellotto, has no more than a subordinate role with Guardi; depth is suggested by atmospheric effects. Despite the subjectivity of Guardi's approach, his paintings, no less than those of the two older painters, are also illustrations of a Venetian reality. The city is admittedly not depicted with a view to accuracy, but through the use of transparent colour and through the nervous brushwork a shimmering atmosphere is reproduced, creating an authentic image of the specific mood and the unique character of Venice. Several of the limited number of paintings by Francesco Guardi that can be dated securely belong to this period; these include the series commemorating the visit paid to Venice by the Russian prince Paulus Petrovitz and his consort in 1782 - the so-called 'conti del nord' - and the series with which Guardi recorded Pope Pius VI's visit to Venice in the same year. The series depicting the papal visit is exceptional in Guardi's oeuvre, because it is the only known commission in which the artist's instructions were set down in a contract. Other paintings that can definitely be assigned to this late period include several representations of the fire in San Marcuola which occurred in 1789.
Guardi continued to paint vedute and capriccios until late in life, but neither fame nor fortune ensued. Whereas Gian Antonio Guardi, as a history painter, was one of the founders of the Venetian Accademia, his younger brother Francesco was not admitted as a pittore prospettico until 1784, at the age of seventy-one. His public consisted not so much of foreign residents of Venice and tourists, for whom for example Canaletto did a great deal of work, but rather of a group of intellectuals and clergy from the middle classes of Venetian society. Guardi died on 1 January 1792.
Until the nineteenth century his son Giacomo, who took over the studio, continued producing town views in the style of his father. Indeed, so successful was Giacomo at imitating his father that where several works are concerned, the last word on attribution has not yet been spoken.