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Claude-Joseph Vernet

French, 1714 - 1789

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Claude-Joseph Vernet became one of the most famous landscape and marine painters of eighteenth-century Europe. His father, a decorative painter, was his first teacher. Thus the young Joseph came into contact with the architects, painters, and sculptors who worked for the local nobility and clergy on a number of decorative schemes in Avignon (which still belonged to the papacy) and the surrounding area. Destined to become a more ambitious painter than his father, Vernet studied with the local history painter Philippe Sauvan. He soon established his own contacts with patrons. For the Marquise de Simiane, he executed in 1731 some landscape paintings as decorative overdoors for her Aix-en-Provence hôtel, which may have been his first independent commission. This background in decorative painting remained an important influence on Vernet's art, not just because he continued to paint tableaux de place from time to time--for example, a suite of four marine paintings to decorate the Bibliothèque du Dauphin at Versailles in 1762--but also because his paintings always manifest a sure sense of pictorial design and sheer attractiveness; even the most dramatic subjects are done with good taste.

To study in Rome was the dream of most ambitious young French artists in the eighteenth century. In 1734 the twenty-year-old Vernet was able to make the trip, thanks to the help of several patrons, including the Marquis de Caumont, a cultivated and enlightened nobleman from Aix-en-Provence. In Rome, Vernet could study some of the greatest collections of art formed since the Renaissance, full as they were of famous antiquities and modern masterpieces. Vernet also lost no opportunity in exploring the landscape in and around Rome and south to Naples, classic ground rich in literary, historical, and artistic associations. He found his market niche painting topographical views of Rome and Naples, imaginary italianate landscapes, and, above all, marine scenes, usually showing either a calm harbor at dawn or dusk or a rocky shore beaten by storms and peopled with the distraught victims of shipwreck. Part of Vernet's success lay in the fact that his works were reminiscent of the great landscape masters of the previous century, such as Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet, but were rendered with the lighter palette and sharper sense of observation characteristic of his own time.

In Rome, Vernet studied for a short time with the French painter of marine subjects Adrien Manglard, who had long resided there. Although he was encouraged by Nicolas Vleughels, the sympathetic director of the French Academy at Rome, who introduced him to the French artistic community there, Vernet did not enjoy French royal patronage, and of necessity led an independent existence. He established friendships with other French painters resident in the Eternal City, such as Pierre Subleyras, and he also knew Giovanni Paolo Panini, whose lively style of figure painting he adapted.

Vernet not only studied in Rome, but soon found patrons there and in Naples, especially among the French diplomatic community. The close ecclesiastical connections between Avignon and Rome facilitated Vernet's introduction to Roman prelates and their entourages. Thus in the 1740S he painted four marine paintings (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and a grand landscape (Mauritshuis, The Hague; cat. 301) for Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga a particularly distinguished patron who was one of the greatest collectors of Settecento Rome. He also made an impressive cycle of large decorative landscape and marines for Prince Giacomo Borghese (Palazzo Borghese, Rome). British visitors on the Grand Tour greatly esteemed Vernet's landscape and marine pajntings, which also served as handsome souvenirs of dangerous seas crossed, ports safely gained, or the Campagna surveyed with an informed tourist's eye. The fact that Vernet's wife, Virginia Parker (the daughter of a captain in the papal navy), had English as her native tongue no doubt facilitated relations with the British. They remained Vernet's most loyal patrons during his twenty years in Italy, from 1734 to 1753.

It was the visit in 1750 of Mme. de Pompadour's brother the Marquis de Marigny--accompanied by the architect Jean-Germain Soufflot and art critics Charles-Nicolas Cochin and the Abbé Le Blanc--that brought Vernet his first royal commission for a pair of paintings and the intimation that he might be summoned to France. Since 1746 he had been sending landscape and, above all, marine paintings from Rome for exhibition at the Salon in Paris, and this fresh breath of Italian air, this gleam of Italian light on French walls, brought him remarkable critical acclaim. Indeed a great commission was soon devised, that Vernet should paint a series of monumental views of the major commercial and military seaports of France. Thus in 1753 began a long and often onerous tour of duty, from Toulon in the south to Dieppe in the north, that would end only in 1765, with the completion of sixteen works that collectively are perhaps the greatest royal commission of the reign of Louis XV. These large paintings are fascinating documents for the social and economic historian, because they present precisely observed pictures of seaport life in France at the time. Indeed, Vernet was required to include characteristic scenes of port life for the different regions of France, along with representative examples of local shipping. But these paintings are also great works of art, in which the artist assimilated a mass of fascinating particular observations into impressive, and unified compositions with as much authority as any history painter of the time.

On his return to France, Vernet continued to exhibit landscapes and marines at every Salon until his death in 1789. He attracted commissions from all over Europe, becoming indisputably the most famous landscape and marine painter of the second half of the eighteenth century. Among Vernet's admirers was Denis Diderot, who gave him some of his finest and most adulatory pages in reviewing of the Salons of 1765 and 1767. However, in time Diderot and other critics began to notice that Vernet was relying more and more on well-tried formulas, that his subjects were becoming repetitive, that his observation of nature was less exact, and that his style was becoming too elegant, and even mannered. Vernet's Problem--a perennial one for almost any very successful and popular artist--was that most collectors wanted typical works, recognizably by his hand: he had created a Europe-wide demand for evocative italianate landscapes, calm Mediterranean harbors at dawn or sunset, and rocky coasts with dramatic storms and shipwrecks. The critics were right: by about 1770 his eye was less sharp, his observations were becoming routine, and the touch of his brush was rather soft and even slick. But Vernet had happily established a successful market and was busy until the day he died, in December 1789, satisfying the demands of eager patrons from Paris to St. Petersburg and from London to Vienna.

Philip Conisbee, from Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (2000), pp. 452-453.

Lagrange, Léon. Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Didier, 1864;
Ingersoll-Smouse, Florence. Joseph Vernet: peintre de marine, 1714-1789. 2 vols. Paris: Étienne Bignou, 1926;
Conisbee, Philip. Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1714-1789: Frances's Most Famous Landscape and Marine Painter of the Eighteenth Century. London: Greater London Council, 1976;
Conisbee, Philip. "Vernet in Italy." In Ciardi, Roberto Paolo, Antonio Pinelli and Cinzia Maria Sicca, eds. Pittura Toscana e pittura europea nel seccolo dei lumi: atti del convegno, Pisa, Domus galilaeana 3-4 dicembre 1990. Florence: S.P.E.S., 1993, pp. 129-40.

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