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Art in Eighteenth-Century Rome


Claude-Joseph Vernet
Avignon 1714 – 1789 Paris

A Mediterranean harbor at Sunset with Fisherfolk at the Water’s Edge, a Lighthouse and a Man of War at Anchor in the Bay

oil on copper
22 3/8 x 29 1/4 inches
56.8 x 74.3 cm
signed and dated, lower right: ‘J. Vernet.f/1761’



Antoine Antonin, duc de Gramont (1722–1801)
his sale, Paris, 16 January 1775, lot 67
Sotheby’s, London, Old Master Paintings, 17 May 1961, lot 49
with Hallsborough Gallery, London, 1963
Private collection, Europe
Christie’s, London, Important Old Master Pictures, 13 December 2000, lot 59
with Richard Green, London, 2000
Sotheby’s, New York, Important Old Master Paintings & Sculpture, 27 January 2011, lot 187
Private Collection, New York



Florence Ingersoll-Smouse, Joseph Vernet, Peintre de Marine, Paris, 1926, vol. II, p. 54, no. 1338.


Lent by a Private Collection, New York

‘It would be difficult to cite, before M. Vernet, a painter who understood as well as he, the variety of Nature & divers effects of light…and who if one examines his work closely, has that fineness in the execution & so sure a touch’. Thus wrote a critic about the Four Times of Day (Art Gallery of South Australia, 984P27 I–IV) exhibited by Vernet in the Salon of 1757. Those paintings, each 11 5/8 x 17 1/8 inches, were painted, like the present work, on sheets of copper and for one of Vernet’s most discerning patrons, Pierre-Charles de Villette.

This superb Mediterranean port scene is painted on an unusually large scale for a work on copper. It was almost certainly commissioned by Antoine VIII, duc de Gramont, whose sale in 1775 included this among four paintings by Vernet.

Born in Avignon, Vernet moved to Italy in 1734 aged twenty and spent almost the next twenty years based in Rome, where he developed a clientele for his gauzy coastal views and port scenes which play on the atmospheric effects of light on water often at recognizable times of day. The 18th-century connoisseur and collector Pierre-Jean Mariette wrote of Vernet that ‘He stole from Nature her secret… he learned to render with great truth the different effects of light, the effect produced by vapor in the air, drawn up towards the sun from the ground or from water’ (David Wakefield, French Eighteenth-Century Painting, London, 1984, p. 155). Vernet was patronized by a wide range of royal, rich and aristocratic collectors most notably the brother of Madame de Pompadour, the marquis de Marigny, who as Surintendent des Bâtiments handed him the single greatest commission of Louis XV’s reign: To paint the series of The Ports of France (Musée du Louvre and Musée de la Marine), described by Philip Conisbee, the late scholar of Vernet’s paintings, as ‘one of the great achievements of the 18th century, and among the masterpieces of French painting’ (Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1714–1789, London, 1976).

Vernet painted this group between 1753 and 1765, exactly at the time that our Mediterranean port scene was executed. Vernet was interested in the extremes of nature: night and day, fog and blue sky, storm and calm and often he painted pairs or groups of four which would contrast these different moods. This painting, for which no pendant is recorded, shows an imaginary coastline with a setting sun gleaming on the calm waters of a bay. Shipping dawdles at anchor while a fisherman hauls his catch from a rowing boat onto a rocky promontory. Two young men flirt with girls in the foreground, while in the distance the eye is drawn to a lighthouse and an austere classical temple. This scene, though idealized or imaginary, is based on Vernet’s many years in Italy which provided inspiration for his entire career; the lighthouse is loosely based on the one in Naples of which Vernet made a drawing now in the Albertina, Vienna (22813). A similar view but with more aristocratic staffage, A Sea-Shore (The National Gallery, NG201), was painted on a slightly larger sheet of copper in 1776 for Jean-Baptiste-Félix-Hubert de Vintimille, marquis des Arcs and comte de Luc who was governor of Marseilles. That painting was commissioned as a pendant for another work on copper which had been painted in 1772. It is interesting that Vernet recorded the substantial price of 47 livres he paid for the copper plate.

Rome gave Vernet the inspiration for the support but out of his substantial corpus only about 25 works on copper survive. It was a support foreign to his French contemporaries, Fragonard or Robert, but one which was widely used in Italy and especially in Rome. Claude Lorrain and Adam Elsheimer, both artists who Vernet would have admired, had employed it in the 17th century, while in the 18th century it was widely used by Italian painters Maratti, Trevisani, Conca, Giaquinto and Batoni among many others. Works on copper were prized for their luminosity, especially when the metal is silvered, which makes this support perfect for Vernet’s atmospheric depictions of light.

In 18th-century Rome such idealized landscapes were well attuned to Enlightenment views of nature: Perfect when calm and dreadful in its power when enraged. Diderot wrote ‘the marines of Vernet, which show all sort of incidents and scenes, are as much history painting to me as the Seven Sacraments of Poussin’. No wonder the next generation of landscape painters, Hackert, Bidault and Lusieri would continue to look to Vernet for inspiration.❖

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