Giuseppe ZAIS

Forno di Canale 1709 - Treviso 1781


Born in the small mountain town of Forno di Canale (now called Canale d’Agordo), near Belluno, Giuseppe Zais became one of the leading landscape painters of the second half of the Settecento in Venice. Few details of his long career, which lasted almost fifty years, are known, however. He only rarely appears in documents of the period, although his name is listed in the records of the Fraglia, the Venetian guild of painters, between 1748 and 1768. He studied the work of his fellow Bellunese artist Marco Ricci, from whose prints he adopted many of his characteristic landscape settings, and in the 1730s came under the particular influence of the Tuscan artist Francesco Zuccarelli, who was a few years older. Like Zuccarelli, Zais made a speciality of pastoral landscapes and was much inspired by 17th century Dutch paintings, while he also painted a number of battle scenes. He remained somewhat in the shadow of Zuccarelli in Venice, however, and was almost completely unknown in England, where the elder artist established a successful reputation. Nevertheless, such is the close stylistic and thematic relationship between the works of the two artists that in later years Zais’s paintings were often confused with those of his more famous compatriot, with the result that a number of paintings by Zais entered English collections as the work of Zuccarelli. Although the collector and connoisseur Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice who was an important patron of Canaletto, is known to have commissioned several works from Zais, none of these can be identified today. Zais came into his own as a landscape painter and draughtsman in Venice following Zuccarelli’s departure for London in 1752. As the 19th century artist and museum director Frederic William Burton wrote of him, ‘Zais profited so well by [Zuccarelli’s] tuition that he is considered to have surpassed his master in certain qualities of their art. He attracted the attention of the English Consul, Joseph Smith, a passionate collector of works of art and rare books, and was by him brought largely into notice among wealthy amateurs...In the compositions of this painter the landscape always plays an important part, and is treated with much grace and elegance. The figures, well grouped, frequently illustrate some biblical, historical, or mythological event; otherwise they represent battles, fêtes-champêtres, or a fanciful rustic life.’ Zais’s manner did not change much throughout his career, and it remains difficult to establish a firm chronology for his paintings or drawings. Giuseppe Zais’s most significant works as a decorative painter were a series of frescoes on the walls of the Villa Pisani at Strà, in the Veneto, executed between 1760 and 1765. He produced a number of etchings, and provided illustrations for an edition of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, published in 1772. It was not until 1774, when he was already in his sixties, that Zais was accepted into the Accademia Veneziana as a landscape painter. Sadly, however, his career seems to have ended not long afterwards. As the 18th century art historian Luigi Lanzi wrote in his Storia pittorica dell’ Italia: dal risorgimento delle belle arti fin presso al fine del XVIII secolo, first published between 1795 and 1796, Zais ‘failed to sustain either his own dignity or that of his art, and giving himself up to carelessness and dissipation, he died a common mendicant in the hospital of Trevigi.’ Although most of Giuseppe Zais’s extant landscape drawings are executed in pen and ink and wash, a handful of watercolours are also known. A significant number of drawings by the artist are today in the collection of the Museo Correr in Venice, while other fine examples are in the Szépmüvészeti Müzeum in Budapest, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice and the Albertina in Vienna.