This remarkably preserved view of a port at sunset is a mature work by Claude-Joseph Vernet, arguably the most famous view painter of the second half of the eighteenth century. Both its pristine condition and smooth copper surface make the soft and subtle light of the setting sun glistening in the soft Meditteranean waves as moving today as it would have been the day Vernet painted it.
In A Mediterranean Port at Sunset, Vernet's marvelous ability to capture the nuances of light and atmosphere and his use of the smooth surface of a copper support create an evocative and impressive portrait of an unknown yet familiar port, probably somewhere in southern Italy. Surprisingly, it is one of only a few paintings on copper by the artist, for it would seem that the even, nonabsorbent surface would be perfectly suited to his refined technique, but the vast majority of his paintings are on canvas. The choice of support may have had more to do with monetary rather than aesthetic considerations, for most of Vernet's paintings were commissions and copper was far more expensive than canvas. A Mediterranean Harbor is, in fact, quite large for a copper and would have been very costly indeed.
Signed and dated 1778, the painting dates from Vernet's maturity, when the artist had been the foremost painter of marine subjects in France for more than three decades. He had learned his trade in Italy and it was probably through an association with Adrian Manglard in Rome, where he arrived in 1734, that Vernet first turned to marine painting. He remained and worked in Rome until 1753, when he was summoned back to France on the initiative of the Marquis de Marigny, in order to fulfill one of the most important commissions of the reign of Louis XV: the representation of the Ports de France, a project he continued to work on until 1765 and included expansive views of all of France's major commercial and miliary seaports. Vernet's style changed little throughout his career and some of his finest works date from his late maturity; see, for example, the enormous canvas (160 by 261 cm) commissioned by William Petty, 2nd Earl Shelburne and executed in 1776 at the age of 62.1
1. Sold at Sotheby's New York, 27 January 2011, lot 183, for over $7,000,000.