Born in Amersfoort in Holland in 1653, Gaspar van Wittel received his early training in the workshop of Matthias Withoos (1627-1703), who was predominantly a painter of still lifes, but who also produced views of Dutch ports. By 1675 Van Wittel was in Rome, where, known as Vanvitelli, he was to be based for the rest of his life, making documented trips to northern Italy in the early 1690s, to Naples in 1700-1701, and most probably to other, unrecorded destinations, before circa 1730.
In his painting Vanvitelli drew partly on the type of architectural capricci produced in Rome by Viviano Codazzi, as well as the work of Johann Wilhelm Baur, who had been active there during the 1640s. Yet, unlike these, he structured his views according to highly rational principles of vision, combining a meticulous description of the subject with a strict adherence to its panoramic perspective. His choice of subject matter was also original. Unlike the Northern landscape artists active in Rome in the late seventeenth century, who had tended to convey a more generic 'Italianate' atmosphere, Vanvitelli concentrated on the accurate description of the city and its monuments, choosing to depict less familiar aspects of the modern city. This was in contrast also to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tradition of Italian artists who tended to prefer images of ruined architecture, often peopled by figures from the classical and literary worlds.
It is not known for certain exactly when Vanvitelli went to Venice for the first time. After a probable visit on his way to Rome in 1674, he returned to the city at least once between 1690 and 1695 (see L. Laureati, in the catalogue of the exhibition Gaspare Vanvitelli e le origini del vedutismo, Rome and Venice, 2003, p. 189). In 1697 he signed and dated the splendid View of the Molo, the Piazzetta and the Ducal Palace now in the Prado. This was his first dated veduta of la Serenissima, although he had produced a series of drawings that almost certainly relate to the trip he probably made to the city circa 1694-5.
Three of these drawings (see figs. 1-3, Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Vittorio Emanuele, 3, II, 1;5; and 7) correspond closely to the present composition of The Entrance to the Grand Canal and together with the paintings provide an interesting insight into Vanvitelli's working practices (as outlined by Laureati, op. cit., pp. 267-269, nos. D16-D18). The first (pencil, pen, ink and watercolour) defines the architecture of the composition and serves as the basis for the finished painting. The squared paper shows the importance of precision in the lay-out and perspective. After the careful delineation of the architecture of the Salute and the palace facades, he moves on to applying some brown watercolour in order to begin to denote the area that will be in shadow in the painting. In the next drawing, he develops further, with subtle application of watercolour, the contrast of the areas of light and shade. Here he also sketches in a few boats. The third, unfinished, drawing completes the series with an even more detailed attention brought to the exact perspective, employing a grid of smaller squares to define the composition. A drawing that connects with, but does not seem to be preparatory for the view of San Giorgio Maggiore executed in pen and ink on blue paper, exists at the Royal Palace, Caserta.
The present View of San Giorgio Maggiore and Entrance to the Grand Canal are dated 1709 and 1710 respectively. Neither is referred to by Briganti, who lists five versions of both compositions (G. Briganti, ed. L. Laureati and L. Trezzani, Gaspar van Wittel, Milan, 1996, pp. 248-250, nos. 314-318, and pp. 247-248, nos. 309-313). The latter is also inscribed by the artist 'Roma'. Of the versions of the view of San Giorgio Maggiore, only the present one is dated. Of those of the Entrance to the Grand Canal, that in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, bears the date 1706. It was common practice for Vanvitelli to make detailed drawings of a view, from which (as with the present lot and possibly all the versions) he would then execute the paintings at a later date. All the painted versions of the present views show marked differences to each other, particularly in the boats, figures and cloud formations.
The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore is here taken from the Bacino di San Marco in front of the Customs House or Dogana. On the right can be seen the tip of the island of the Giudecca with the Campanile of the now-destroyed church of San Giovanni Battista. Dominating the centre of the composition is San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Andrea Palladio and built between 1559 and 1568. The pendant is taken (presumably from a boat) from the centre of the entrance to the Grand Canal with, on the left, Santa Maria della Salute, Baldassare Longhena's Baroque masterpiece, begun in 1631, behind which is the Gothic Abbey of San Gregorio. Beside this is the tower of the Palazzo Venier delle Torreselle, a fifteenth-century building destroyed in the nineteenth, next to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. At the end, on the bend of the Canal is the Palazzo Correr, today the Prefettura, and on the extreme right, the Palazzo Tiepolo, today the Hotel Britannia. Both views are lit by a sunlight that causes reflections to appear in the water and casts shadows behind the figures by the Salute. The light also plays a crucial part, not just in leading the viewer's eye across and into the depths of the views, helping define the carefully delineated space and perspective, but it also provides the sense of poetic luminosity that pervades both pictures.
Born in Paris in 1749, and a collector of note, César-Louis-Marie Villeminot was the husband of Anne-Françoise Vandenyver, daughter of Jean-Baptiste, who was Madame du Barry's banker. Made Receveur général of Bourges in 1775, he was arrested in the Revolutionary chaos of 1793, principally for his connections with Vandenyver, but later appointed payeur général of the Navy in 1800.
Most of Villeminot's purchases were made in the last decade of the Ancien Regime and during the Revolution. The sale that took place in Paris after his death included The Fountain of Love (Wallace Collection, London) and the Island of Love (Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon) by Fragonard, as well as pictures by Watteau, Chardin, Boucher and Oudry. He also had a taste for the cabinet pictures of the Dutch and Flemish petits maîtres. The highest price in the sale (5401 francs) was paid for a pair of Marines by Joseph Vernet. The expert at the sale, Alexandre-Joseph Paillet, was listed as being one of the most active buyers. This was quite possibly the way of denoting that a lot was unsold in the sale. It is not therefore clear if the present pair was indeed sold at the auction.