Painter and draughtsman Pietro Longhi [ née Pietro Falca] was born 5 November 1701 in Venice, where he spent most of his life and career.
His father, Alessandro Falca, encouraged his natural talent for drawing, and he studied under Antonio Balestra. One of Longhi’s first independent works, the St Pellegrino altarpiece, recalls his Venetian origins and training in its broken brushwork and colour glazes.
Around 1737 Longhi joined the Venetian painters’ guild and moved away from grand historical compositions and began painting the small-scale genre works for which he is renowned. The dearth of dated works throughout his career makes chronological reconstruction of his oeuvre difficult, but it is generally agreed that his earliest works of this nature were scenes of peasant life. A number of drinking, dancing and tavern scenes exist as well. In 1741 Longhi signed and dated The Concert, an interior view of Venetian noble life. Sources suggested for Longhi’s genre pictures include William Hogarth and Antoine Watteau.
From the 1740s Longhi continued to paint Venetian interior scenes; they are small, rarely taller than 650 mm, almost never show more than one wall and rarely include windows. They are painted in colours that are clear and clean, and they show a deep appreciation of the texture of fabrics, which are occasionally enlivened with flickering splashes of colour.
In his mature work Longhi produced both peasant scenes and interiors depicting noble life. Longhi was immensely popular in his day; he was lionized as an outstanding imitator of nature and was even compared favourably to Tiepolo. In a society that constantly looked to its past greatness and whose contemporary art was almost entirely allegorical, his scenes of 18th-century life were a novelty. In the late 20th century his work was appreciated for his charming doll-like interiors. His pictures contain many things, including portraits now unrecognized, which were undoubtedly part of their attraction.
Longhi’s best-known image today records a historical event, the exhibition in Europe for the carnival of 1751 of a rhinoceros that had been brought to Europe ten years previously. This was one of the few rhinoceroses that had been seen in Europe since 1515, when Dürer made his famous woodcut based on drawings of one that had been taken to Lisbon. Longhi represents the occasion with unaffected simplicity as the showman displays the animal to a group of spectators in carnival costume, holding in one hand the horn of the animal and a whip.
Longhi died in Venice on 8 May 1785.
Reference: John Wilson. “Longhi (iii).“ Grove Art Online. Oxford art Online. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T051796pg1.
Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice, 1751. The National Gallery, London, Nr. NG1101.
Games at the Country House, c. 1750. Accademia Carrara.
The Geography Lesson, c. 1750. Museo civico di Padova
Wet Nurse, c. 1750. Museo del Settecento veneziano.
Venetian Masks, c. 1750. Accademia Carrara
Further Reading: Babette Bohn; James M. Saslow. A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art. Hoboken: Wiley, 2013.
Teresio Pignatti. Longhi ( Pietro Longhi Paintings and Drawings). London: Phaidon, 1969.