This perfectly complementary pair of views dates from the last years of Canaletto's life and exemplifies the qualities of the artist's final phase, the full distinction of which has only been recognised in recent times.
The first, taken from the Palazzo Ducale, the shadow of which falls across the foreground, shows on the opposite - west - side of the Piazzetta, Sansovino's great Libreria, first projected in 1532 and only completed after 1585: on the left is the Column of Saint Theodore with the Giudecca behind; on the right, the view into the Piazza San Marco is 'framed' by the southern side of the Campanile which had fallen in 1745, but was promptly reconstructed. The companion composition, similarly 'framed' on the left by the Campanile, shows the Piazza San Marco as seen from the front of the Basilica flanked by the Procuratie Nuove, begun in 1582, on the left, and on the right the Procuratie Vecchie, with the church of S. Giminiano (which was to be demolished in 1807) opposite and, beyond the campanili of the churches of San Moisè and S. Fantino. Both views are shown in morning light, the sun being higher in the first, which no doubts explains why there are more bystanders in this, and the two are similar in tonality. Despite its small dimensions, in the Piazza San Marco, Canaletto achieves an extraordinary sense of space.
Both compositions relate to earlier works. That of the Piazzetta was first used in the later 1730s for a large picture (18¼ x 30½ in.) in the set supplied to Thomas Brand of the Hoo (Constable, no. 69). The motif of the puppet show appears in this, but not in a variant formerly in a private collection (Constable, no. 70). This reappears in the canvas from the series assembled by the Neave family (Constable, no. 71), which has a pendant of the Ducal Palace from the Piazzetta (Constable, no. 74), taken in effect from the opposite viewpoint. Canaletto inevitably painted numerous views of the Piazza San Marco. Two other of these are defined by Constable as 'looking west along the central line': that formerly in the collection of the Dukes of Leeds at Hornby Castle (Constable, no. 24) and the picture in the Fitzwilliam series (Constable, no. 23), both of which were originally paired with views of the Piazza from the west, the latter as elements of a series of eight canvasses, the former as part of a group with two larger pairs.
Relatively few pictures can be assigned with confidence to the final decade of Canaletto's activity, from his return to Venice, until his death in 1768. Clearly the pressure of commissions was reduced and Canaletto no longer needed to delegate to assistants in the way that had evidently been necessary earlier. But as the celebrated sequence of four large canvasses executed for Sigismond Streit, now at Berlin, demonstrates, his powers as a topographical painter did not diminish (Constable, nos. 242, 282, 359 and 360). Constable, in 1962 (I, pp. 152-3), was the first to define the character of Canaletto's later work, but his dating of the Streit pictures to the early 1740s compromised his account, and the correct dating of these was first made by Links (Constable, revised by Links, 1976); in 1989, Sir Michael Levey ('Canaletto as artist of the urban scene', in the exhibition catalogue Canaletto, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988, p. 29), citing the 'fierce clarity and compressed energy' of the National Gallery Piazza San Marco (Constable, no. 20), argues that that picture offered 'evidence of how age only increased Canaletto's artistic assurance'. Something of the same bravura and economy is sensed in these intimate canvasses which are likely to be of after 1760 and indeed, most probably of after 1763, the date of the Los Angeles Piazza San Marco looking south and west (Constable, no. 54).
The patterns of dots that accent the crowds that people both the Piazzetta and the Piazza suggest the speed at which the experienced master worked. The pointillist touch -- for it is not strictly calligraphic, to use Constable's term -- was clearly a short cut devised by the artist for himself. But could this imply an observation of the use of such rounded accents by Vermeer, whose Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, now in the Royal Collection, was of course owned by Consul Smith, who seems to have commissioned a copy of it in Venice (C. White, The Dutch Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, Cambridge, 1982, p. 143 under no. 230)? Certainly no precise precedent in Italy comes to mind.
Vernon J. Watney was the heir of the celebrated family of brewers, and in 1891 married Lady Margaret Wallop, fifth daughter of Isaac, 5th Earl of Portsmouth. He acquired Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire (fig. 1) and built up an outstanding collection of pictures which was kept there and at his London residence, 11 Berkeley Square. Many pictures in the collection were assembled in the 1890s, partly at sales at Christie's and partly from dealers and agents, including Sir George Donaldson. Most of the collection was inherited by the Watneys' son, Oliver Vernon Watney and sold after his death; the major old masters, sold in these Rooms, 23 June 1967, included such masterpieces as Botticelli's Marriage Feast of Nastagio degli Onesti and two panels by Juan de Flandres, the Temptation now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Marriage at Cana, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Linsky collection. A number of components of the collection, including these views, had already passed to other members of the family.