Art Encyclopedia: Pietro Longhi (born November 5, 1702, Venice — died May 8, 1785, Venice) Italian painter. Son of a Venetian goldsmith, he studied painting in Bologna and thereafter became known for his scenes of everyday life among Venice's upper class and bourgeoisie. Popular for their charm and seeming naïveté, his paintings have a Rococo sense of the intimate and manifest the interest in social observation characteristic of the Enlightenment.
His small-scale genre works
He is best known for his small pictures depicting the life of upper-middle-class Venetians of his day. Pastel-colored, doll-like figures move stiffly but daintily through The Visit (Metropolitan Mus.) and Exhibition of a Rhinoceros (National Gall., London, other version in Ca' Rezzonico, Venice). Apart from early frescoes done in a more lively and vigorous style (Sagredo Palace, Venice) Longhi's artistic life was devoted primarily to his small-scale genre works. He duplicated several of his own works, many of which were also copied by his followers.
"The Visit", 1746, New York, The Metropoliten Museum of Art, 61 x 49.5 cm
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. He was married in 1732 to Caterina Maria Rizzi. His son, Alessandro Longhi, 1733-1813, was a portrait painter and author of a work on the lives of 18th-century Venetian painters, for which he engraved the illustrations.
"The Letter", 1746, New York, The Metropoliten Museum of Art, 61 x 49.5
Death of the giants
Among his early paintings are some altarpieces and religious themes. In 1734, he completed frescoes in the walls and ceiling of the hall in Ca' Sagredo, representing the Death of the giants.
"Ritratto di famiglia", 1752, Venezia, Ca' Rezzonico, 62 x 50
The gallant interior scenes reflect the 18th century's turn towards the private and the bourgeois. 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.
"The Rhinoceros", 1751, Venezia, Ca' Rezzonico
Clara the Rhinoceros
This painting 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. Note artists' fascination with the species as evidenced by Dürer's Rhinoceros more than two centuries earlier. There are two versions of this painting, nearly identical except for the unmasked portraits of two men in Ca' Rezzonico version. (Other version in National Gallery, London)
The puppet-like delicacy of the persons
Other paintings chronicle the daily activities such as the gambling parlors (like Ridotto) that proliferated in the 18th century. 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. Nearly half of the figures in his genre paintings are faceless, hidden behind Venetian Carnival masks.
"The Charlatan", 1757, Venezia, Ca' Rezzonico, 62 x 50 cm
The art critic said: "Longhi painted for the Venetians passionate about painting, their daily lives, in all dailiness, domesticity, and quotidian mundane-ness. In the scenes regarding the hairdo and the apparel of the lady, we find the subject of gossip of the inopportune barber, chattering of the maid; in the school of dance, the amiable sound of violins. It is not tragic... but upholds a deep respect of customs, of great refinement, with an omnipresent good humor distinguishes the paintings of the Longhi from those of Hogarth, at times pitiless and loaded with omens of change". (A paraphrase of Bernard Berenson)
"La lezione di danza" (The Dancing Lesson), ca 1741, Venezia, Gallerie dell'Accademia, 60 x 49 cm