A church interior with a view of the altar; and A church interior with a view of the nave
Major Porter, Pershore (1882 – 1955).
Edward Speelman AG, Zug, Switzerland.
Private Collection, France, acquired from the above on 3 July 1969 (as by Canaletto and ‘one signed with initials’).
We are grateful to Charles Beddington for endorsing the attribution to Canaletto and Neefs the Elder, and for the following catalogue note.
The architectural element in these exquisite, tiny paintings on copper is characteristic of the style of Pieter Neefs I (Antwerp c. 1578 – 1656/61) and seems very probably to be his work. The technique, leaving a smooth picture surface, seems entirely Northern and contrasts with the much more three-dimensional application of the figures. The compositions are also entirely characteristic of Neefs, that showing a church by day being strongly reminiscent of Antwerp Cathedral, of which Neefs painted many variants. That in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is particularly close, but differs particularly in the depiction of the right aisle. No precisely corresponding versions are known. A pair of church interiors on copper and of identical size was sold at Im Kinsky, Vienna, 19 June 2012, lot 5; signed with initials, those were sold as the work of Pieter Neefs I. Another pair, on copper and of very similar size, was sold at Christie’s, New York, 30 May 2003, lot 26; also signed with initials, those were sold as the work of Pieter Neefs II. A pair of church interiors, oval and of identical size but on ivory, was sold at Galerie Bassenge, Berlin, 31 May 2018, lot 6037; signed with initials and dated 1650, those were given to Pieter Neefs II. The only aspect which is uncharacteristic, and indeed may be unique, is the absence of figures, which were usually added to Neefs paintings by other hands, notably Frans Francken II and Frans Francken III.
There seems no reason to doubt that the figures, those in the distance abbreviated to dots of paint, are the work of Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto (Venice 1697 – 1768). Although no other instance of Canaletto contributing figures to an earlier painting by another artist is known, considerable numbers of Dutch cabinet paintings are recorded in Venetian collections in the eighteenth century. It must be presumed that two tiny church interiors by Neefs had remained without figures and that a Venetian (or, just possibly, London-based) collector thought that it would be amusing to ask Canaletto to provide some. It is tempting to relate this to what we know about the character and tastes of Canaletto’s patron and agent Joseph Smith (c. 1674 – 1770). Smith certainly owned a much larger, signed pair of panels by Neefs, showing Antwerp Cathedral by day and by night, which entered the Royal Collection with the sale of the bulk of his collection to King George III in 1762/3 (F. Vivian, Il Console Smith, mercante e collezionista, Vicenza, 1971, pp. 73-74 and 208-09; R. Razzall & L. Whitaker, Canaletto & the Art of Venice, exh. cat., Royal Collection, London, 2017, p. 187, illus. in colour figs. 66-67). Smith acquired those with the collection of the painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675 – 1741), along with, for instance, Johannes Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman also in the Royal Collection. Lucy Whitaker suggests that Smith’s appreciation of those, or other Flemish paintings of this type, may have influenced his commissioning from Canaletto two views of the interior of the Basilica of San Marco, the later of which is datable around 1755/6 (Razzall & Whitaker, op. cit., pp. 190-91, no. 73, illus. in colour). It may be no coincidence that Canaletto’s figures in these copper plates would seem on stylistic grounds to be of very similar date.
While most of Smith’s collection was sold in 1762/3, many paintings were not. No inventory is known of the contents of Smith’s villa at Mogliano on the mainland and sales of paintings from his collection took place in London in 1773, 1776 and 1789.