Lot 39
  • 39

Claude-Joseph Vernet

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 GBP
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  • Claude-Joseph Vernet
  • A view of Avignon, from the right bank of the Rhône near Villeneuve
  • signed and dated lower left: Joseph Vernet f/ 1757
  • oil on canvas
  • 37½in by 90½in


Commissioned by Louis-Gabriel Peilhon (1700-1762), Conseiller-Secrétaire du Roi, in 1751, who paid the artist 1,500 livres in 1757;
His deceased sale, Paris, Remy, 16 May 1763, lot 82, for 4,000 livres;
Pierre Louis Paul Randon de Boisset (1708-1776), Receveur général des Finances;
His deceased sale, Paris, Chariot, 18 March 1777, lot 202, to "Ste Foy par Aubert" for 4,200 livres; 
Ange-Joseph Aubert (1736-1785), Joaillier de la Couronne;
His deceased sale, Paris, Hugues, 2 March 1786, lot 58 to Paillet for 4,300 livres;
Anonymous sale (Louis-François Saubert or J. Desmarest), Paris, Boileau, 17 March 1789, lot 88 to Marin for 3,702 livres;
M. Marin;
His deceased sale, Paris, Serreau, 22 March 1790, lot 339 to Joseph-Alexandre Lebrun(?) for 3,000 livres;
Probably anonymous sale, London, European Museum, 26 May 1806, lot 1738;1
Brightric Gofton Hutton Gee (d. 1949), Curraghen, Chew Magna, Bristol, 1954;
With Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, 1954;
From whom acquired by the father of the present owner.



Paris, Salon, 1759, no. 67;
London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Recent Acquisitions on Exhibition, 15 November - 18 December, 1954, no. 22.


F. Ingersoll-Smouse, Joseph Vernet, Paris 1926, vol. I, p. 87, no. 683 and p.53, plate LXVII (engraving), fig.683;
Advertisment in The Burlington Magazine, vol. XCVI, December 1954, unpaginated, reproduced plate XXI;
G. Briganti, The View Painters of Europe, London 1970, pp. 280-281, reproduced fig. 246;
Probably B. Fredericksen, ed., The Index of Paintings Sold in the British Isles during the Nineteenth Century, vol. 2, Oxford 1990, part 2, pp. 1052, 1053, 1056.

By Pietro Antonio Martini in 1782, with a dedication to the Prince des Asturies.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden, who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's. This painting has a firm comparatively recent lining and stretcher, perhaps from the middle of the last century, which has retained its fine even texture. The exceptionally beautiful condition of the picture reflects the evident care and esteem with which it has always been surrounded, as the eminent early provenance of the picture shows. The extraordinarily pure and intact paint surface has scarcely any interruption of any sort. There is a faint horizontal stretcher bar line near the horizon with a few minute curls of wispy craquelure nearby. These have had occasional little blanched dots of muting watercolour retouches. Only around the edges has there been a narrow band of darkened retouching, presumably from the period of the lining, perhaps to accommodate a new frame, just covering the rebate, with a little of the tacking edge extended at the upper right edge. There is just one other retouching, a narrow little vertical line in the centre left foreground running up briefly from the base edge in the same darkened retouching as the lining surround. The signature is crisp and intact, with the final 7 perhaps slightly blurred. The detail throughout the painting is exquisitely preserved, with the flow of the brushwork even and unworn, and the radiant light over the landscape perfectly balanced. There may one little place in the foliage of the tree on the right against the sky which is faintly thinner than elsewhere, but it is rare to see a painting in such a perfect condition. This painting was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This magnificent painting is Claude-Joseph Vernet’s only recorded view of his birthplace, the city of Avignon, and amongst his greatest achievements as a painter. Rarely seen in public and, subsequently, little studied, it was described by Giuliano Briganti in 1970 as “one of Vernet’s finest views.”2  The painting was last offered at auction more than 200 years ago and since then has appeared in public only once when exhibited by Arthur Tooth & Sons of London in 1954. Until that time it had been known to scholars only through Pietro Antonio Martini’s engraving of 1782. The reappearance of this important painting is not just of great significance to scholars of Vernet himself, but also to the study of 18th century view painting at large. It is, too, an important document detailing the appearance of the rarely depicted city of Avignon in the mid-18thcentury, seat of the Papacy in the 14th century, and little changed to this day.

Claude Joseph Vernet was born in Avignon in 1714 and received his early training in the city, first under the tutelage of his father Antoine and later in the studio of Philippe Sauvan (1697-1792). Sauvan’s work in Avignon was primarily religious commissions and decorative schemes and Vernet soon moved on to Aix-en-Provence to study under the marine and landscape painter Jacques Viali (c. 1681-1745).  Vernet’s work on decorative commissions in the studios of Sauvan and Viali gave him access to the private collections of Avignon and Aix.  Here he came into contact with works by the earlier generation of decorative landscape artists, Gaspard Dughet, Salvatore Rosa and most importantly, Claude Lorrain. His first independent work, a series of landscape overdoors, is recorded in 1731.His early talent drew the attention of Joseph de Seytres, Marquis de Caumont (1688-1745), who, as the first in a long line of French noble patrons, offered to sponsor a trip to Italy.  The purpose of the trip was twofold, Vernet was both to continue his artistic education and make drawings after the city’s antiquities for his patron.

Vernet arrived in Rome in 1734. The artist's introduction into papal circles was facilitated by his early years in Avignon, where his work had brought him into contact with a number of important churchmen. Avignon was a papal territory from 1348-1791 and although the papacy had long since returned to Rome the city was ruled by the Congregation of Avignon, a department of the Papal Curia. Vernet soon integrated himself within the French artistic community that thrived in Rome. He was granted access into the Academie de France in Rome and worked closely with the French landscape and marine artist Adrien Manglard. Within four years Vernet’s success in Rome was such that he began to keep a record book of his commissions, a Livre de Vérité, and in 1743 he was accepted into the Accademia di S. Luca.4 During these early years in Rome, Vernet became best known for his stormy shipwrecks, imaginary landscapes and Italianate coastal views. His first important patron in Rome was a fellow Frenchman and Ambassador to Rome, Paul-Hippolyte de Beauvilliers, Duc de Saint-Aignan (1684-1776) and his works soon became highly sought after amongst a diverse range of patrons including British visitors undertaking the Grand Tour, Roman nobles, churchmen and French diplomats.

Whilst Vernet’s output in Rome during the 1740s largely consisted of decorative marines and landscapes he also produced a small number of topographical works, earlier precursors to his Ports of France series and the present work.  Vernet honed his skills as a topographical artist on famous views of the city such as the Ponte Rotto (fig. 1) and Castel Saint Angelo (fig. 2) and later in the decade painted the magnificent View of the Bay of Naples (fig.3).5 These topographical paintings differ from his other work in that the handling of paint is much more precise and the individual details acutely observed. However they share with his decorative work a lively interest in figures and an exquisite rendering of light. Vernet’s topographical views are best understood as part of a European wide interest in the development of city topography. This manifested itself in Rome through the work of cartographers, such as Giovanni Battista Faldi, printmakers like Giovanni Battista Piranesi and in the works of the vedutisti such as Gaspar van Wittel, called Vanvitelli. It is also recognisable in Venice through the work of Canaletto and his followers.

As Vernet’s reputation grew in Rome, so too did his fame back in France. In August 1746 he was approved by the Académie Royale in Paris, and his subsequent exhibitions at the Paris Salon enabled his work to become better known in France. In 1750 Abel-François Poisson de Vandières (1727-1781), later Marquis de Marigny and more importantly Directeur des Bâtiments, visited Vernet’s studio in Rome as part of his Grand Tour. It is likely that during this visit discussions were held about Vernet’s return to France and an imminent major Royal commission. The following year Vernet records accepting a commission from the Avignonese nobleman, Louis-Gabriel Peilhon (1700-1762), Conseiller-Secrétaire du Roi, to paint a view of their shared birthplace.6 Despite the lure of a Royal commission and his commitment to Peilhon, it was not until 1753 that Vernet returned to France. He visited Avignon briefly to see his dying father but soon moved on to Paris, where he was received as a full member of the Académie Royale on the 23 April.  In the same year he was commissioned by Louis XV to paint The Ports of France series. This was to be, for both Louis XV and Vernet, the most important artistic commission of their lifetimes. It was intended to be a set of, probably twenty four, topographical views of all the major military and commercial seaports in France.  The whole series was never completed but fifteen paintings were executed and were exhibited in the Paris Salon from 1755-1765.7 Vernet was given an official route along the coast and asked to report in to the Marquis de Marigny at regular intervals.  This important royal commission dominated Vernet’s first decade back in France and by the end of 1756 he had completed seven paintings for the series.

Despite the importance of the Royal commission Vernet appears to have been anxious to complete his promised View of Avignon for Louis-Gabriel Peilhon.  Peilhon was an important early patron of Vernet’s in Rome in the late 1740s and early 1750s. Peilhon's first commission, a pair of marines, dates from 1748 and his deceased sale of 1763 included eight paintings by Vernet (including the present work).8 In the first half of 1756 Vernet visited Antibes and Toulon and produced three views of the two ports.9 He had been travelling almost constantly and was in need of a rest. On the 16 May he wrote to the Marquis de Marigny to ask his permission to spend the summer in Avignon, breaking from the Ports of France series to fulfil his other obligations.10  Vernet arrived in Avignon on the 3 July 1756 and the following three months in the city were a brief hiatus in his hectic itinerary.11  

The View of Avignon that he began that summer has much in common with the paintings from the Ports of France series. It is both a masterpiece of topography and an excellent example of Vernet’s unrivalled abilities as a decorative artist.  The Port of Antibes (fig. 4), painted in the same year, shares many characteristics with the present painting:  a removed viewpoint, a minute observation of topographical detail, a characteristic use of golden light and a lively depiction of the foreground figures. It is unsurprising, given the two paintings were executed in the same year, to find Vernet using the same format and techniques in both works.  However, it is possible that these parallels were more deliberate and that by painting Avignon in the same format as Antibes, one of the country’s foremost seaports, Vernet was intentionally raising the status of his birthplace to a comparable level of importance.  It is unlikely that fellow compatriot Peilhon would complain, neither at the city’s implicit elevation, nor at the similarities between his commission and the paintings executed for Louis XV.

Despite these similarities the present painting is smaller and narrower in format than the paintings Vernet executed for the Ports of France series.  The precise viewpoint Vernet chose favours the elongated composition. He positioned himself on the bank of the Rhône, in front of the Colline de Villeneuve, with the Ile de la Barthelasse in the middle ground and the peaks of the Alpilles beyond, looking back at the city from across the river. The medieval walls and the banks of the Rhône have restricted modern expansion of the city, and this view of the city is little changed today (fig. 5).  Vernet’s viewpoint enabled him to depict all the most important sights of the city, which he does with a fine brush, in meticulous detail. The Palais des Papes, the Petit Palais, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon, the church of Saint Pierre, the medieval ramparts and gates are all visible. Outside the walls, Vernet has depicted the Tower of Philip the Fair in the left foreground and the Pont Saint-Bénezet.12 Topographically Vernet’s depiction is extremely accurate.

The painting is also one of Vernet’s more beautiful renderings of atmosphere and of the evening sky at sunset. He paints the city bathed in the golden light of the setting sun and the result is sublime. The western facades of the buildings are sharply defined by the richness of the sun's dying rays while to the east long shadows stretch across the grassy flatlands of the Ile de la Barthelasse. Despite the time of day the waters of the river are still bustling with life. On the far right a ferry boat transports a carriage and its team towards the far bank of the Rhône, whilst on the left, three barges with heavy loads of quarried stone are dragged along the river from the towpath by a team of carthorses, the heavy towrope causing an unnatural ripple in the river's otherwise gleaming surface.  As with so many of Vernet’s compositions the foreground is enlivened by the activities of the local populace.  On the far right a courting couple sit on the bank watching the sun go down, in the centre a group of local fishermen and their women gather whilst other peasant women wash their laundry in the river. On the far left a party of elegantly dressed men and women rest on the bank and, in the immediate left corner, a finely dressed couple promenade with their dogs, a white terrier and a collared hound.

It is probable that most of the work on the painting was finished during the summer but the painting was not completed until the following year, and is signed and dated 1757. Vernet records receiving payment of 1,500 livres in the same year and it was exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1759.13 The painting was highly admired in the Salon and in 1781 was engraved by Pietro Antonio Martini (fig. 6).14

Peilhon died in 1762 and the painting was included in his deceased sale of 1763 where it was sold for 4,000 livres to Randon de Boisset.  It is interesting to note this dramatic increase in value, which brings the View of Avignon up towards a comparable price with the paintings from the Ports of France series, for which Vernet was paid 6,000 livres each.15 Pierre Louis Paul Randon de Boisset (1708-1776), Receveur général des Finances (fig. 7) was a prolific art collector. His 1777 sale, which included the present painting, fetched a total of 1,260,775 livres and was an important event in Paris.  After this sale The View of Avignon passed through three further French collections, before disappearing from records after it was bought by the dealer Joseph Alexander Lebrun at M. Marin’s sale in 1790 (see provenance). It is highly likely that the painting then travelled to England and is identifiable with a View of Avignon listed in the catalogue of the European Museum, 26 May 1806, lot 1738.16 The description: "A view of Avignon, in the South of France, justly esteemed the chef d'oeuvre of Vernet. This beautiful and glowing performance was purchased by the Comte de Vaudreuil for twelve thousand livres, out of the exhibition at Paris, near forty years ago. Vernet was a native of Avignon; and the house where he was born, on the Banks of the Rhone, and near the Papal Palace, he has here accurately described" matches the present painting exactly, as does the approximate Salon date.  However the present painting was never owned by the Comte De Vaudreuil and the price he is listed as having paid was eight times Peilhon’s recorded payment.  It is therefore probable that both the provenance and price listed in the sale catalogue are erroneous. No view of Avignon is listed in the Comte de Vaudreuil's various sales in the 1780s and '90s and it is highly improbable that Vernet would have charged 12,000 livres for any single painting.  

The European Museum, begun in April 1789, was an institution in King Street, which offered paintings for sale by private contract, and was open for public exhibition all year round. New consignments were taken for the duration of a year, and accepted every Monday. Sales listings were updated continuously and the infrequently published sales catalogues were very quickly out of date. Records of the institution’s actual transactions are limited and there is no indication of where the View of Avignon went after 1810.  The painting disappeared from public records until 1954 when it was rediscovered in the collection of the late Brightric Gofton Hutton Gee at Curraghen, Chew Magna. Gee was not a major collector and how it came into his possession is unknown.  A collector named “Gee” was buying in the London salerooms in the first decade of the 19th century and he is probably the same “Gee” who was active in the sale of paintings belonging to Bristol iron founder John Gibbons (1777-1851) on 7 October 1820.  Although the title page is lacking from the only extant copy of this catalogue it is likely that the sale took place in Bristol and “Gee” is listed as a buyer of five lots, including lot 46, A Shipwreck by Claude Joseph Vernet, for which he paid £105.  Although there is no proven link between this "Gee" and Brightric Gofton Hutton Gee it is interesting to note a collector by the same name, in the Bristol area, with a taste for Vernet, buying in the same period as the View of Avignon was on the London art market.  The 1954 sale was the only time the painting was exhibited in public in the last 200 years and the importance of its re-emergence today cannot be overstated.

1. The painting appears to have gone unsold in May 1806 and is again listed on 29 December 1806, lot 1738, 4 July 1807, lot 59, and 26 May 1810, lot 53. In 1807, and again in 1810, the painting was consigned by a W. Smith. See B. Fredericksen, ed., The Index of Paintings Sold in the British Isles during the Nineteenth Century, vol. 2, Oxford 1990, part 2, pp. 1052, 1053, 1056.
2. G. Briganti, The View Painters of Europe, London 1970, p. 280.
3. P. Conisbee, in The Grove Dictionary of Art, London 1996, p. 331.
4. Published in L. Lagrange, Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1864.
5. All three are in the Louvre, Paris. See L. Manoeuvre and E. Rieth, Joseph Vernet. Les Ports de France, Paris 1994, pp. 21, 24, 25.
6. See Lagrange, op. cit., 1864.
7. Three of this series are in the Louvre, Paris and twelve are in the Musée national de la Marine, see Manoeuvre and Rieth, op. cit., pp. 43-145.
8. P. Conisbee in Claude-Joseph Vernet, exhibition catalogue, London 1976, under no. 22.
9. Manoeuvre and Rieth, op. cit., p. 41.
10. Lagrange, op. cit., p. 82.
11. Journal, published in ibid., p. 283.
12. The bridge is commemorated in the famous song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon."
13. H.W. Janson comp., Catalogues of the Paris Salon. 1673-1881, London 1977, p. 17, no. 67.
14. Martini dedicated the print to the Prince of Asturias, the future Carlos IV, as a tribute to his recent request for a pair of paintings by Vernet. Conisbee in Claude-Joseph Vernet, exhibition catalogue, 1976, no. 85.
15. G.W. Lundberg, ‘Le graver suédois Pierre-Gustave Floding à Paris et sa correspondance’ in AFF, Novelle Period, vol. XVII, 1932, p. 277.
16. Listed in B. Fredericksen, ed., The Index of Paintings Sold in the British Isles during the Nineteenth Century, vol. 2, Oxford 1990, part 2, p. 1052, and again, p. 1053, 1056.
17. Fredericksen, op. cit., pp. 1053, 1056.