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.

2. Critical Reception and Posthumous Reputation.

   Vernet's international reputation had followed him from Rome to France, and to his British and French clients he added German princes and Russian nobles.  From the 1760s to the 1780s no collection was deemed complete without examples of Vernet's art.  He was the leading landscape and marine painter of France -- even of Europe, if the newly developing (and essentially insular) school of landscape painting in Britain is discounted.  Only post-Romantic prejudice led some 19th - and 20th -century commentators to criticize Vernet's repetition of subject-matter as lacking in invention or self-renewal.  He was responding to market demand, though he gradually developed a slightly harder handling and colour; some discriminating connoisseurs in his own day preferred the more supple brushwork and poetic effects of light and colour of the Italian period.  He was best known for his storms and shipwrecks; his grandson (3) Horace Vernet even received a government commission for Joseph Vernet Attached to the Mast Painting a Storm (Avignon, Musée Calvet).  The Salon critics loved to describe the actions and gestures of the figures on seashores or doomed in wrecks, who were helpless pawns in these elemental dramas.  Denis Diderot wrote eloquent commentaries on Vernet in his Salon reviews, notably in 1767.  The excellence of Vernet's figure drawing and his mastery of gesture and expression brought his work close to the admired genre of history painting.  Moreover, the horror of his shipwrecks gave precisely that aesthetic pleasure to be had from safe contemplation of disaster and misfortune, a topic probed in Edmund Burke's contemporaneous Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful ( 1757).

   Such artists as Pierre-Jacques Volaire or Joseph Wright of Derby would develop the more sensational aspects of Vernet's art to greater extremes.  Volaire was a pupil of Vernet for a time, while Wright, like many artists, knew of Vernet's work via British or perhaps Italian collections and occasionally painted a Vemet-like moonlit harbour or other Italianate coast scene.  The young Scottish artist Jacob More, inspired by Vernet's Landscape with a Waterfall (Duke of Buccleuch private collection), painted his Falls of the Clyde (Edinburgh, N.G.) before setting off in 1773 to study in Italy.  The Italian Carlo Bonavia exploited Vernet's success in Italy, producing his own variations on Vernet themes during the 1750s and 1760s.  These are still sometimes mistaken for works by Vernet, but Bonavia employed more open compositions and a distinctive brushwork.  Around 1750 Vernet encouraged Richard Wilson to study landscape, and Wilson was to some extent influenced by his subject-matter and style.  Later in Paris in 1781 Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes took Vernet's advice on painting from nature out of doors; this was to have important consequences for French landscape painting in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Many minor artists, such as Jean Pillement or Alexandre-Jean Noel (1752 - 1834), the latter for a time a pupil of Vernet, occasionally produced works in his manner.  Others, such as Jean Baptiste Lallemand, worked in Rome during the 1750s and early 1760s, producing paintings in an Italianate or Vernet-like manner, whether directly inspired by him or not.  Those recorded as copying works by Vernet, for instance Thomas Patch, almost inevitably produced their own Italianate works in his manner.  Apart from Volaire, his chief assistant and follower was Charles-François Grenier de Lacroix. In his notebook of 1746 Vernet recorded a payment to 'Grenier' for making copies, and it seems that Vernet employed him in his studio to this end.  There are paintings by Lacroix at Uppark (W. Sussex, NT), signed and dated 1751, that are precise copies of works by Vernet in the same collection and virtually indistinguishable from the originals.  Excellent copies or replicas of Vernet paintings appear from time to time, but too little is known about his studio practice always to ascertain whether they are autograph or by some good copyist such as Lacroix.  Among Vernet's Provençal followers was Jean Henry d'Arles (1734-84), who worked in and around Marseille producing somewhat mannered imitations of Vernet (e.g. Shipwreck, 1756; Marseille, Mus: B.-A.); he also executed some large-scale decorative paintings of Italianate seaports.  Jean-François Hue was another follower, and perhaps had lessons from Vernet, but is chiefly remembered for his commission to take up the Ports of France series.


L. Lagrange and A. de Montaiglon: 'Joseph Vernet: Pièces et notes pour servir à l'histoire de ses tableaux des Ports de France', Archvs A. Fr., vii (1856), pp. 139-63

L. Lagrange: Les Vernet: Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1864) [incl. Vernet's notebook of 1738]

J. Guiffrey: 'Correspondance de Joseph Vernet avec le Directeur des Bâtiments sur la collection des Ports de France, et avec d'autres personnes sur divers objets, 1756-87', Nouv. Archvs A. Fr.,. MrchvsA. f}:, 3rd ser., ix (1893), pp. 1-99

FLorence Ingersoll-Smouse: Joseph Vernet: Peintre de marine, 2 vols (Paris, 1926) Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1714-1789 (exh. cat., ed. P. Conisbee; London,

Kenwood House; rev., enlarged, Paris, Mus. Mar.; 1976)

Philip Conisbee