Richard Wilson painted this intimate portrait of the Italian landscape painter Francesco Zuccarelli in Venice in 1751. Today Wilson is remembered principally as a landscape painter in the classical tradition. Yet at the time he painted this picture he was still working principally as a portraitist.
Wilson described the circumstances surrounding the making of Zuccarelli's portrait in a letter to his patron Admiral Thomas Smith (1706 or 7-1762), dated 8 June 1751:'Sigr Zuccarelli a famous painter of this place made me an Offer of his painting me a picture for a portrait of himself wch I am doing with great pleasure' (Solkin, p.177). The picture is relatively small, both its size and style having a closer affinity with the works of contemporary Venetian artists than those of his British counterparts. Compared to his previous commissioned, society portraits, the image stands out in terms of its strong character and sprightliness, indicating a genuine rapport with the sitter, whose sparkling eyes and genial smile reveal a warmth and keen intelligence.
Francesco Zuccarelli was born in Florence in 1702, although his formative years as an artist were spent in Venice, where he worked as a painter of Rococo, pastoral landscapes from the 1730s onwards. Despite his formulaic and repetitive style, by the mid eighteenth century Zuccarelli was deeply admired by his fellow Italians and by visiting British artists and connoisseurs. Among his patrons was the influential merchant banker, collector, picture dealer and sometime British consul, Joseph Smith (c.1674-1770), whose collection boasted many works by contemporary Italian artists, including Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), Marco Ricci (1676-1729), Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), Giambattista Piazetta (1683-1754) and Canaletto (1697-1768). Zuccarelli was employed by Smith to paint decorative classical and religious landscapes, as well as a series of overdoors featuring English Palladian buildings in imaginary Italian settings. He also appears to have acted as a tour guide, escorting the young Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) around Venice in 1752.
It was probably through the agency of Smith that Zuccarelli was introduced to British artists and collectors, including Wilson. Encouraged by Smith, Zuccarelli left for England in 1752. He remained there for ten years, his landscapes proving particularly popular among those members of the landed aristocracy who had made the Grand Tour. Zucarelli even tried his hand at Shakespearean subjects, painting Macbeth and the Witches in 1765 (private collection). He returned to England once more in 1765, and became a founder member of the Royal Academy, where he exhibited until 1773. By this time, however, he had settled once more in Venice, where he was elected President of the Academy. He died in 1788.
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1982, p.177, no.59
Michael Levey, Painting in XVIII Century Venice, London 1959, pp.60-9