Pietro Longhi was a Venetian painter, who mastered the portrayal of scenes of everyday Venetian life. Born Pietro Falca, he changed his last name to Longhi when he began painting. As a child, his father encouraged his natural talent for drawing, and he later studied under the acclaimed history painter Antonio Balestra in Verona. Like his early mentor, Longhi began his painting career with history paintings, depicting grand historical themes. After the unsuccessful reception of his painting Fall of the Giants, Longhi transitioned to painting small interior scenes under the tutelage of a painter of contemporary life, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, turning to them completely by 1741. Rather than paint the vast architectural glory of Venice or decorative schemes like his contemporaries, Longhi became the chronicler of contemporary Venetian life. A such, almost all of his paintings were outside of the mainstream of Venetian art, which was filled with grand historical and religious cycles.
Longhi was extremely popular during his lifetime, painting bright scenes with a light social comedy. Many show Venetians at play, and chronicle the daily activities of a typical Venetian citizen, such as going to the barber’s, duck hunting, gambling, or watching an exhibition at the zoo. Longhi was also a very accomplished draftsman, and many of his drawings are beautiful for their own sake. Many of the drawings were not done as sketches for future paintings, but for the artist’s own enjoyment.
Not only a painter, Longhi also taught drawing and painting for much of his life, and founded an academy of painting and engraving. His legacy also includes both a chronicle of daily Venetian life though his paintings, as well as his son Alessandro Longhi, who was an accomplished artist in his own right.
Pietro Longhi (1702 or November 5, 1701 – May 8, 1785) was a Venetian painter of contemporary genre scenes of life.
Pietro Longhi was born in Venice in the parish of Saint Maria, first child of the silversmith Alessandro Falca and his wife, Antonia. He adopted the Longhi last name when he began to paint. He was initially taught by the Veronese painter Antonio Balestra, who then recommended the young painter to apprentice with the Bolognese Giuseppe Maria Crespi, who was highly regarded in his day for both religious and genre painting and was influenced by the work of Dutch painters. Longhi returned to Venice before 1732. He was married in 1732 to Caterina Maria Rizzi, by whom he had eleven children (only three of which reached the age of maturity).
Among his early paintings are some altarpieces and religious themes. His first major documented work was an altarpiece for the church of San Pellegrino in 1732. In 1734, he completed frescoes in the walls and ceiling of the hall in Ca' Sagredo, representing the Death of the giants. In the late 1730s, he began to specialize in the small-scale genre works that would lead him to be viewed in the future as the Venetian William Hogarth, painting subjects and events of everyday life in Venice. Longhi's gallant interior scenes reflect the 18th century's turn towards the private and the bourgeois, and were extremely popular.
Many of his paintings show Venetians at play, such as the depiction of the crowd of genteel citizens awkwardly gawking at a freakish Indian rhinoceros (see image). This painting, on display at the National Gallery in London, chronicles Clara the rhinoceros brought to Europe in 1741 by a Dutch sea captain and impresario from Leyden, Douvemont van der Meer. This rhinoceros was exhibited in Venice in 1751. There are two versions of this painting, nearly identical except for the unmasked portraits of two men in Ca' Rezzonico version. Ultimately, there may be a punning joke to the painting, since the young man on the left holds aloft the sawed off horn (metaphor for cuckoldry) of the animal. Perhaps this explains the difference between the unchaperoned women.
Other paintings chronicle the daily activities such as the gambling parlors (Ridotti) that proliferated in the 18th century. Nearly half of the figures in his genre paintings are faceless, hidden behind Venetian Carnival masks. In some, the insecure or naive posture and circumstance, the puppet-like delicacy of the persons, seem to suggest a satirical perspective of the artists toward his subjects. That this puppet-like quality was an intentional conceit on Longhi's part is attested by the skillful rendering of figures in his earlier history paintings and in his drawings. Longhi's many drawings, typically in black chalk or pencil heightened with white chalk on colored paper, were often done for their own sake, rather than as studies for paintings.
In the 1750s, Longhi—like Crespi before him—was commissioned to paint seven canvases documenting the seven Catholic sacraments. These are now in Pinacoteca Querini Stampalia along with his scenes from the hunt (Caccia).
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