Claude-Joseph Vernet is widely considered the greatest marine painter in 18th century France, an accomplished landscapist and a favorite among discerning collectors for his sublime and romantic views. The pictures for which he is best known are his studio works, defined by their brilliant coloring, the atmospheric light of dusk and dawn, lively anecdotal figures, detail and drama. They are generally imaginary or capriccio views rather than topographical ones, composed from a collection of nature studies into picturesque arrangements (the notable exception being the artist’s superb Ports of France series, commissioned in 1753) – but, without close study of nature, it would have been impossible for Vernet to paint such convincing and appealing marines. His dedication to this study can be seen, perhaps more than anywhere else, in the fresh and spontaneous plein-air sketches dating from his time in Italy, such as this View of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, which anticipate the work of the Impressionists in the 19th Century.
Vernet travelled to Italy in 1734, drawn, like many other international artists, by the region’s picturesque landscapes, historic monuments, temperate climate and host of wealthy patrons to court. Among the sites he visited and recorded with his pen and brush during the nearly two decades he spent in the region was Tivoli, which he discovered in 1737, as noted in a letter from Père Fouque in Rome to the Marquis de Caumont (7 March 1738): ‘Le jeune Vernet…a fait un voyage et un assez long séjour à Tivoli ou il voulair exercer son talent et le perfectionner en poignant des paysages d’apràs nature.’ Thanks in part to its proximity to Rome, which lies some 30 km to the southwest, Tivoli had long been a destination for artists. The Italian landscapists whose work was so coveted by Grand Tourist collectors—Claude, Gaspard Dughet and Salvator Rosa—all sketched there, while the Northern Italianates, including Cornelis van Poelenburgh, Pieter van Laer, and Gaspar van Wittel also sought out the spectacular views. Jan Brueghel the Elder drew the Temple of Vesta as early as 1593, using the drawing as a basis for a capriccio landscape. Several years after Vernet’s own discovery of Tivoli, Giovanni Battista Piranesi included a nearly identical view of the Temple in his Vedute di Roma (fig. 1).
Tivoli boasts an ideal combination of factors: Classical ruins, rustic modern buildings, grottoes, a plunging cascade, Salvatorean wildness and of course significant historical and mythological associations. This tempestuous Salvatorean nature appears in Vernet’s own renderings of Tivoli (fig. 2). The Temple of Vesta itself is a small, peripteral structure dating from the 1st Century BC, which sits within the larger complex of the Villa Gregoriana overlooking the falls of the Aniene river. In the past it has been misidentified as the Temple of the Sibyl, which is in fact the rectangular structure just adjacent.
The Temple’s iconic and immediately recognisable silhouette made it a sort of shorthand for ‘Italy’, and thus it appeared in landscape paintings of all sorts, both naturalistic and imaginary. Copies of the building itself were requested for 18thCentury English gardens including those at Stowe, Stourhead, and Downhill, where they signified the taste and culture of the estate owners. Soon after his first visit to Tivoli, Vernet began to regularly incorporate the Temple into his capriccio marines and fanciful landscapes, thereby giving his imaginary compositions a sense of fidelity to Italy’s classical past (fig. 3 and 4).
Vernet and plein-air painting
Although 19th Century masters like the French Impressionists and John Constable are generally held to represent the zenith of the plein-air landscape tradition, they were not its originators. The plein-air oil sketches of Vernet, and, somewhat later, fellow French artists Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819) and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), and Welshman Thomas Jones (1742–1803), were every bit as accomplished as Monet’s haystacks or Renoir’s gardens, but the essential difference was that these studies were not considered ‘finished’ artworks in their own right the way they are by a modern audience. Rather, they were tools for the artist himself, and as such they have historically been overlooked or unattributed, with many of them hidden from view until well into the 20th Century.
Vernet was a strong and early advocate of painting directly from nature, recommending to fellow artists the regular and close study of the natural environment and the accurate observation and recording of transient details such as effects of sunlight and weather conditions. According to Philip Conisbee, there is a letter plausibly attributed to Vernet, probably written following his return to Paris in 1765, which Conisbee describes as a ‘mini treatise’ on the subject of painting from nature. In it, Vernet observes: ‘The shortest and surest method is to paint and draw from nature. Above all you must paint, because you have drawing and colour at the same time.’ This approach directly inspired Valenciennes, who went on to espouse many of the same ideas about plein-air painting in his more formal, published 1810 treatise Élémens de Perspective Pratique. We know Vernet also met with Sir Joshua Reynolds in Rome sometime between March 1750 and the beginning of May 1752, possibly introduced by the English artist Thomas Patch, who was employed in Vernet’s studio. Reynolds later recalled with admiration those plein-air studies shown to him by Vernet, writing to Nicholas Pocock in 1780: ‘I would recommend to you, above all things, to paint from nature instead of drawing; to carry your palette and pencils to the water side. This was the practice of Vernet, whom I knew at Rome; he then shewed me his studies in colours, which struck me very much, for that truth which those works only have which are produced while the impression is warm from nature.’
In this fresh and painterly oil study, Vernet has given prominence to the Temple itself, which stretches above the distant, hilly horizon, silhouetted against the sky. He includes, as he does in many of his studies and sketches of the site, the arcaded substructure, evidence of his interest in archaeological sites. His palette relies on tones of rust, ochre and sienna to describe the Temple and the promontory on which it stands, surrounded by scrub brush, while the sky and hills are described in cool tones of blue, green, violet and silver. The rough weave of the canvas lends texture to the painted surface, while the forms are recorded in brushstrokes that are painterly yet faithful to nature.
Among the many drawings of the same site, the nearest in composition, though taken from a slightly lower vantage point, can be dated to around 1745 (École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 156; fig. 5). Vernet also made a number of sketches specifically focused on the rocky terrain of the gorge, some of which approach abstraction in their highly textured surfaces. An oil sketch on canvas, taken from a greater distance and encompassing much of the surrounding landscape as well as the Temple complex, is dated circa 1745. Another, seemingly more highly finished yet topographically faithful composition appeared recently on the art market.
In the studio sale that took place following Vernet’s death in 1789 there appeared ‘33 Tableaux & Études, peints d’après nature, tant à Rome qu’à Naples, de différentes grandeurs, sur toile sans cadre.’ (33 paintings and studies, painted from nature, both in Rome and in Naples, of different sizes, on paper without frames.’) as well as over 500 drawings, in a range of media, among which were numerous views of Tivoli. This painting appeared in that sale as lot 217, where it was bought by Henry Walton for William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne.
An Anglo-Irish member of the Whig party, Lansdowne—who was known as the Earl of Shelburne until 1784 – served as the first Home Secretary in 1782 and then as Prime Minister in 1782-83. He is remembered as the broker of peace with America, bringing a conclusion to the American Revolution. Lansdowne counted among his friends Benjamin Franklin, the inventor, diplomat and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and became a patron of numerous celebrated artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted his portrait (fig. 6), and Robert Adam, who designed Lansdowne House in London (fig. 7); it was begun for the 3rd Earl of Bute in 1762 and sold to Lansdowne, then Lord Shelburne, while a work in progress; Adam had already worked on the family’s country seat, Bowood in Wiltshire. The painted decorations by Giovanni Battista Cipriani and Antonio Zucchi were commissioned by Lansdowne himself.
Vernet’s view of Tivoli next appeared at auction in 1806 when it was included in Day 2 of Lansdowne’s posthumous sale, bought by the Rev. Charles Turnor. A distinguished scientist and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, Turnor lived in the home previously owned by Sir Isaac Newton, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Lincolnshire, which was acquired by the Turnor family four years after Newton’s death. As well as a scientist, Turnor was an accomplished amateur artist and a passionate collector of fine art, scientific instruments, Newton memorabilia. Although Turnor bequeathed much of his collection of scientific objects to institutions including the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society, he left this and other paintings to his heirs, and thus this View of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli descended in the Turnor family until it was sold in 2023.
The painting retains an early frame inscribed on the reverse ‘VERNET’, possibly by Turnor or even Lansdowne.❖