The Dictionary of Art © Macmillan Publishers Limited 1996.  All rights reserved.

Claude-Joseph Vernet (b: Avignon, 14 Aug 1714; d: Paris, 4 Dec 1789).  Painter.

1. Life and Work.  (i) Early years and Rome, to1753.

   Vernet probably received his first lessons in painting from his father, Antoine, who then encouraged him to move to the studio of Philippe Sauvan (1697-1792), the leading master in Avignon.  Sauvan supplied altarpieces to local churches and decorative works and mythologies for grand houses in the area.  After this apprenticeship Vernet worked in Aix-en-Provence with the decorative painter Jacques Viali (1681 1745), who also painted landscapes and marine pictures.  In 1731 Vernet independently produced a suite of decorative overdoors for the hôtel of the Marquise de Simiane at Aix-en-Provence; at least two of these survive and are Vernet's earliest datable landscapes.  These are early indications of his favored type of subject, and Vernet would have studied works attributed to such 17th century, masters as Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet, and Salvator Rosa in private collections at Aix and Avignon.  Three years later Joseph de Seytres, Marquis de Caumont, who had previously recommended Vernet to the Marquise de Simiane, offered to sponsor a trip to Italy.  This was partly for Vernet to complete his artistic education but also to provide his sponsor with drawings of antiquities.

   In the early 18th century Avignon was still papal territory; this meant that Vernet had some useful connections among influential churchmen when he arrived in Rome.  He soon found himself at home in the French artistic community there, among other southerners such as Pierre Subleyras. He was allowed access to the Académie de France in Rome and was encouraged to pursue landscape studies by its Director, Nicolas Vleughels.  He was also recommended to the French marine painter Adrien Manglard, who was well established in Rome and who may have taken Vemet into his studio.  By 1738 Vernet was making his reputation as a marine and landscape painter, for about then he began to keep a record of his commissions.  A number of these notebooks survive (Avignon, Musée Caivet; see also Lagrange, 1864), and they reveal that his first important patron was Paul-Hippolyte, Duc de Saint-Aignan, France's Ambassador to Rome and a keen supporter of young French artists based there.  The present whereabouts of the important works Vernet produced for him - recording events during the Duc's mission of 1739 - is not known.  Vernet's earliest known Italian works (circa 1737-8), such as the Cascades at Tivoli (Cleveland, OH, Museum of Art) or the Rocky Landscape in Italy, (London, Dulwich Picture Gallery), are remimscent of Dughet and show his response to the wilder aspects of the Roman Campagna.  They are more softly lit than Dughet's, however, and their superb brushwork is one of the hallmarks of Vernet's early Italian period.

   With them, Vernet was joining a long tradition of artists who depicted picturesque sites such as Tivoli, producing pictures for increasing numbers of visitors making the Grand Tour.  These were to be Vernet's chief patrons during nearly 20 years' residence in Italy, especially the British, who virtually monopolized the Grand Tour in his day.  Other patrons included Roman nobles, churchmen and French diplomats.  Vernet's contacts with British visitors may have been facilitated by his marriage in 1745 to Virginia Parker, daughter of a captain in the papal navy; her father sometimes handled Vernet's business affairs.  Vemet made some topographical works in Italy: a pair of views of the Bay of Naples (1748; Paris, Louvre) for François-Calude de Montboissier, Abbé de Canillac, French chargé d'affaires in Rome; for Elizabeth Farnese, wife of Philip V of Spain, a view of the Villa Farnese, Caprarola (1746; Philadelphia, PA, Museum Art), which includes the Queen's entourage; and modest Roman views such as the Ponte Rotto and the Castel S Angelo (both Paris, Louvre).  While the small-scale and refined observation of this latter pair foreshadow the open-air paintings of Corot and his generation, the larger paintings are part of a pan-European development of topography in the early 18th century, as exemplified by Canaletto's work in Venice and London or by Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Roman prints.  Vernet's paintings are distinguished by thdr sharp observation, precise yet exquisite handling, and by the lively interest of his figures.

Philip Conisbee

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