• ill. 1. p. 30 Jean-Jacques Avril, after Vernet, Naufrage, 1775. Engraving, 43 x 60 cm. London, the British Museum

Son of a decorative painter working for the Avignon aristocracy, Joseph Vernet was initially trained by his father, who had ambitions for him as a history painter. After moving to Aix-en-Provence to study with Jacques Viali, the young artist was given his first commission by the Marquis de Caumont: since lost, this series of twelve overdoors brought him his independence. In 1734 Caumont’s patronage, together with that of the Comte de Quinson, enabled Vernet to leave for Rome to study the old masters and acquire the skills called for by his artistic ambitions. Ultimately, though, it was the greats of landscape, rather than those of history painting, that really caught his attention, and it was the study of Claude Gellée, Salvator Rosa, Giovanni Paolo Panini and Adrien Manglard that shaped his manner and his repertoire. Although he was educating himself in Rome, his contacts at the French academy, then directed by Nicolas Vleughels, helped him find his feet and gave him access to an impressive clientele including French aristocrats, Roman prelates and Grand Tourists. His study visit eventually lasted twenty years, during which he forged an international reputation as a painter of seascapes. His admission to the Academy in 1745 brought access to the Salon and confirmed his status in France. 1750 saw a turning point in his career, when he met Madame de Pompadour’s brother Monsieur de Vandières, Marquis de Marigny, next in line for the post of Master of the Royal Buildings. Vernet’s genius for the seascape genre would inspire Vandières to issue one of the biggest commissions of Louis XV’s reign, the views of the Ports of France, intended to proclaim the kingdom’s military and trading power. This commission led to Vernet’s definitive return to France in 1753 and ten years as an artist on the move. By the time he settled in Paris in 1762, his prestige was such that his prices were soon more than the Crown could afford.
 

Interior design – symmetry of doors and windows and use of overdoors – doubtless played its part in Vernet’s habit of creating his landscapes either in pairs, according to the dialectic of weather or time – night and day, calm and stormy, sunrise and sunset – or in series of four representing the seasons or segments of the day. He was, however, quite as capable of producing freestanding single works to meet the wishes, and the pockets, of his clients. This was probably the case for Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast of 1755, until now known only through Avril’s engraving (see supra ill. 1, p. 30),1 which has no companion piece. The artist’s “housebook”, which lists 29 orders for that year, provides no clue to who commissioned the work, but the date was crucial for the artist: he absented himself from Toulon, where he had set up house for two years in 1754, from 5 June to 5 October, in order to show the king his views of the ports of Marseille and Toulon, and the Gulf of Bandol, and to present them at the Salon, where they created a sensation.2
 

Of all Vernet’s subjects the shipwreck, together with its contradictory pendant, calm weather at sea, was the most appreciated. So intimately was he associated with the theme that the romantic legend sprang up of a young painter who had found his genius by risking his life to wrest nature’s secrets from the atmosphere: in the midst of a terrible storm, it was said, he had himself tied to the mast of the ship taking him on his first trip to Italy.3
 

Storm of a rocky Coast omits none of the features relished by art lovers, and which Denis Diderot lauded spiritedly and at ever greater length from one Salon to the next.4 A few details aside, Diderot’s famous digression on Vernet’s evocative sublimity in his account of the Salon of 1763 could stand in for a description of our picture: “If he brings about a storm, you will hear the whistling of the winds and the crashing of the waves; you will see them rise against the rocks and whiten them with their foam. The sailors cry out; the sides of ships are ripped open: some fling themselves into the water; others, exhausted, are displayed on the beach. Here spectators raise their arms in supplication to the heavens; there a mother clutches her child to her breast: others expose themselves to the danger of saving their friends or relatives; a husband holds his halfdead wife in his arms, a mother weeps for her drowned child, her body outlined by the wind pressing her clothes against her. Crates of goods rock on the water and passengers are dragged down into the depths.
 

It is Vernet who knows how to gather storms, open cataracts in the skies and flood the earth; it is also he who knows how, when it pleases him, to dissipate the storm, calm the seas and restore serenity to the heavens. Then nature, as if emerging from chaos, is lit up enchantingly and reassumes all its charm.”5 In his variants on this theme Vernet brings a broad range of emotion and drama to bear, and recycles the same groups of figures; but the episode of the mother weeping for her drowned baby as her loose garment is moulded to her body by the wind is infrequent enough for us to suppose that Diderot actually knew this picture; especially as in the same sentence he also mentions the presence of the halfdead woman.


The artist’s influences can be deduced from this sample of his manner: Rosa’s broad brushstroke in the rocks, Panini’s colour in the figures, Backhuysen’s observation in the wave-tossed ships, the inventiveness of the golden age Italianate landscape painters – Millet, Glauber and others – in the cloud-laden sky opening out on the right onto a misty mountain backdrop. Diderot liked to recall the modesty of this “great magician”, who had no qualms about comparing himself to his illustrious predecessors: “If you asked me whether I don’t make my skies just as well as such and such a master, I’d answer no; my figures as well as another, I’d answer no; my trees and landscapes as well as yet another, same answer; my mist, water and fog as well as another still, and my answer would remain the same. I’m inferior to all of these masters in these specific respects, but I surpass them in all the others.”6 (M.K.)

 

 

 

1. Florence Ingersoll-Smouse, Joseph Vernet, peintre de marine. Étude critique et catalogue raisonné (Paris: Étienne Bignou, 1926), vol. 1, no. 641, p. 84, fig. 137.
2. Léon Lagrange, Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Didier, 1864), p. 75.
3. This legend was painted by his grandson Horace Vernet in 1821 (Avignon, Musée Calvet) and recounted by Lagrange, 1864, p. 11.
4. Michel Delon, “Joseph Vernet et Diderot dans la tempête”, in Recherches sur Diderot et l’Encyclopédie, no. 15, 1993, pp. 31–39.
5. Denis Diderot, “Salon of 1763”, in John D. Glaus (trans.), On Art and Artists: An Anthology of Diderot’s Aesthetic Thought (London/New York: Springer, 2011), pp. 91–92 [modified translation].
6. John Goodman (ed./trans), Diderot on Art: The Salon of 1767 (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1995), p.123.

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