PIETRO LONGHI (Venice 1701-1785)
Born in Venice on 15 November 1701, Pietro Longhi would first work in the studio of Antonio Balestra. After this he moved to Bologna, where he encountered the work of Giuseppe Maria Crespi, who would have a key influence on the late development of his work – particularly in the field of genre painting.
Up to 1734 Longhi worked as a ‘history painter’; but at the end of that decade he would change focus, dedicating himself almost exclusively to those depictions of local customs that would make him famous both within and beyond the Venetian Republic. Following the example of Crespi, these small-format works were originally concerned with a close and detailed description of the life of peasants or the poorer members of Venetian society. Then, towards the end of the 1740s, the artist would also turn his attention to life within the rich palazzi of Venice. He enjoyed extraordinary success, as one can see from the high-sounding names of his aristocratic patrons: the Sagredo, the Mocenigo, the Grimani, the Querini and the Pisani. In effect, the artist enjoyed the favour not only of the old established artistocracy but also of the newly ennobled and, above all, the nouveaux riches.
This success is explained not only by the novelty of his approach to genre scenes, but also by the very excellence of his skill as a painter. Strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the artist also drew upon the expressive means employed by the great masters of Venetian decorative painting and of rocaille portraiture. The result was a perfect blend of tradition and innovation, an attention to the past which revealed openness to the renewal taking place in European culture as a whole.
For all their differences of intention and approach, Longhi and his fellow Venetian Canaletto both shared that Enlightenment interest in the narration of real life as it was – an interest that links them with the great European artists of the day, from Watteau and Chardin to Hogarth. During his long life – the painter would die on 8 May 1785 – Longhi formed close bonds of friendships with some of those most closely concerned with the renovation of Venetian society – for example, Gaspare Gozzi and Carlo Goldoni. The latter would dedicate to him the famous sonnet “Longhi, who calls forth my sister Muse/With a paintbrush that strives for truth”, a clear acknowledgement that, within different media, the two men were equally concerned with the depiction of real life. Hence, beyond the figures of the Commedia dell’Arte that appear in Goldoni’s plays, beyond the historical and mythological figures that are depicted in Longhi’s small canvases, there is – in the work of both men – a sharp and ironic investigation of daily life.