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. - (ii) Later career; 1753-89.

   Vernet returned to live in France in 1753, beginning work on a series of large topographical paintings of major French commercial and military seaports.  The Ports of France was one of the most important royal commissions of Louis XV's reign and at one level may be seen as propaganda for the French merchant and royal navies, which, ironically, were soon to take a severe beating during the Seven Years War (1756-63).  If completed, the whole series would have comprised perhaps two dozen paintings, but Vernet produced only 15 (2 in Paris, Louvre; 13 on dep. Paris, Mus. Mar.).  Vernet followed an official itinerary along the French coast from Antibes in the Mediterranean to Dieppe on the English Channel via Toulon, Marseille, Bandol, Sète, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Rochefort and La Rochelle.  After visiting each port, he was required to report back to Marigny, explaining which views he had chosen and justifying any changes in his itinerary.  Some ports merited two views (Marseille, Bayonne and Bordeaux), while Toulon needed three.  At times Vernet found it difficult to reconcile the topographical requirements of his patrons with his own concern to create satisfing works of art.  In 1756 there was almost acrimonious correspondence over whether he was allowed to show a storm at sea in the foreground of the Port of Sète; Vernet had his way, and Marigny was pleased with the result.  Each painting has its own beauties, and they were well received at the Salons, where they were exhibited between 1755 and 1765.  They are full of fascinating detail, for Vernet had to include all the characteristic activities of each port; this gives the pictures an almost scientific interest that is typical of the Enlightenment.  He finally gave up the task and settled in Paris in 1765, the series incomplete; during the Revolution Jean-François Huë was commissioned to continue it.

   Vernet continued to produce variations on his well-tried themes of Italianate landscapes, calm seaports, stormy coasts, shipwrecks and moonlit harbours for the rest of his career; works such as Storm with a Shipwreck (London, Wallace; see fig.), bought by his patron Jean Girardot de Marigny in 1754, could equally well have been produced at a later date.  In 1778 he made a trip to Switzerland with Marigny; instead of adapting his manner to fashionable depictions of Alpine scenery he chose to paint sites such as the Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen (private collection, see 1976 exh. cat., p. 24) in the style he had formed in Italy 30 years earlier.

Philip Conisbee

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