- Claude-Joseph Vernet
- Le soir: a Mediterranean harbour at sunset with fisherfolk and merchants on a quay
Clair de lune: a Mediterranean harbour by moonlight with fisherfolk by a fire on the shore, a natural arch beyond
- a pair, the former signed, located and dated lower left: Joseph / Vernet f / Romae 1752 and inscribed lower right: WF37
the latter signed, located and dated lower left: Joseph Vernet / f Romae 1752
- both oil on canvas
- each: 71.6 x 98.7 cm.; 28 1/4 x 38 7/8 in.
Thence by descent until sold ('From the Gräflich Harrach'sche Gemäldesammlung Schloss Rohrau, Austria'), London, Christie's, 17 December 1999, lot 75;
Where acquired by the present collector.
E. Gerisch and K. Specek, Catalog der Erlaucht Gräflich Harrach'schen Bildergalerie, Wien, Vienna 1897, p. 48, no. 121 (Clair de lune; date given incorrectly as 1759), and p. 77, no. 210 (Le soir; date given incorrectly as 1755);
L. Lagrange, Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIème siècle avec le Texte des Livres de Raison et un grand nombre de documents inédits, Paris 1864, 2nd ed., pp. 49 and 361;
H. Ritschle, Katalog der Erlaucht Gräflich Harrachschen Gemälde-Galerie in Wien, Vienna 1926, p. 49, no. 121, and p. 71, no. 210;
F. Ingersoll-Smouse, Joseph Vernet (1714–1789), peintre de Marine: étude critique suivie d’un catalogue raisonné de son œuvre peint, avec trois cent cinquante-sept reproductions, Paris 1926, vol. I, p. 62, nos 353 and 353bis (with incorrect measurements).
As much as any others, these paintings evince the remarkable level of technical skill Vernet had attained by 1752, both as a draftsman and painter. But what really sets them apart is the extraordinarily acute understanding of light that they display, in all its different forms. Through this, Vernet would become a great innovator in the realm of landscape painting, with his moonlit landscapes being especially noteworthy in this regard. Clair de lune is notable for its accomplished rendering of the dual light sources, with the cool, diffuse moonlight contrasting beautifully with the warm glow of the flames and their reflections on the bystanders in the foreground. Le soir is strongly evocative of the late afternoon Mediterranean sun, warming the still harbour waters as they lap gently against the quayside walls. Long shadows contrast with sun-struck stone walls as a distant haze descends on the ocean beyond. It is hard to imagine any other artist of the eighteenth century attaining such a meticulous balance of light in oil paint.
The idea of a moonlit landscape of course was very modern in 1752. Isolated examples can be found in subject paintings from previous centuries, in the art of Adam Elsheimer for example. But Vernet made of the moonlit landscape a whole new genre in which the moonlight itself becomes the subject, and this would ultimately inspire the nineteenth-century Romantic painters such as Friedrich Nerly. The idea of painting a nocturnal scene must have seemed bizarre to the mid-eighteenth century general public, but such was the imagination and observational prowess of Vernet that he made it work better, much better, than anyone had before. All prior and contemporary efforts, even by such great names as Canaletto, pale in comparison to the realism achieved by Vernet. The full moon, peeking through a small gap in the passing clouds, illuminates a bustling coastal scene. Under its watchful gaze fishermen draw in their nets, a lone figure stands on a tidal sandbank grasping his rod in hope, while out in the bay various craft continue their work through the night. On the shore a group of figures watches over a large pot cooking over a fire, one of them stirring it, the others chatting or waiting in expectation of some hot food. Bats circle above them, stretching their wings after a day of inactivity. It is a scene as remarkable for its rich narrative as for its technical and observational brilliance.
With Le soir, an idyllic classical harbour setting, we look straight into the setting sun. Vernet somehow manages to convey the dusky haze one looks through when confronting the setting sun head-on. He has perfected the subtle absorption of light by the partly silhouetted figures on the quay and contrasts the slightly darker tones of the flat paving slabs that the low sun merely glances, with the brightly lit vertical fortress wall to the left that, from its low position in the sky, the sun hits straight on. Here, again, his narrative is in full flow: while the background describes busy port life, the foreground features a group of people lazing around some old cargo boxes and barrels. Some of them are chatting up a lady dressed in red who, tired of their advances, continues apace with her knitting, no doubt willing the arrival of her ferry sooner rather than later. Her companion stands idly beside as if she has seen it all before. Vernet's figures, exquisitely drawn, are their usual animated, lively selves, gesturing and communicative. The painting also features several motifs that Vernet would look back upon and re-use later in his career.1
The paintings in context
When these paintings arrived in Vienna in late 1752 or 1753 they were to make quite an impression on the Viennese public. They were likely the first Vernets to reach that city and they invoked a reaction recorded by Lagrange: ‘L’Autriche à son tour s’émeut. Tout Vienne vient admirer chez le comte d’Harrach six tableaux de Vernet improvisés en un an et payés 2,600 livres’.2 They would be joined in the castle by landscapes from other leading contemporary painters: Vernet’s putative teacher Adrien Manglard, Carlo Bonavia, and Giovanni Paolo Panini. From Panini Von Harrach commissioned two large works in the same year as the Vernets, a Preaching of a Sibyl and a Preaching of an Apostle (fig. 1), both set amid ancient Roman ruins.3 With the Paninis arriving in Vienna presumably at roughly the same time as the Vernets, the Harrach residence must have transformed quickly into a little corner of southern Italy, the cold winters now made bearable by the glowing warmth of Vernet’s and Panini’s golden Mediterranean light.
There was of course nothing exceptional in a foreign commission from a landscape painter in mid-eighteenth century Italy – English aristocrats had been at it since the 1720s, but until the 1750s much foreign patronage had been concentrated on topographical views. Such vedute were in essence expensive postcard mementos of the patrons' favourite places visited. Vernet's imaginary landscapes, however, though loosely based on the coastline to the south of Rome around Naples, mark a departure from a want of mere topography to something altogether more natural; it was their focus on nature, in rock formations, in weather conditions and the effects of sun and moonlight on different surfaces that interested many of his foreign patrons from the 1740s onwards. They were to invoke not just a memory of a place but a feeling for it. They were at once naturalistic and evocative of the visitor’s experience of Italy, to be enjoyed on their patron’s return to the cooler climes of Britain and elsewhere. For the contemporary Grand Tourist or European nobleman these landscapes were thus not to invoke specific memories of certain places, but to symbolise the ‘dangerous seas crossed, ports safely gained, or the campagna surveyed with an informed tourist’s eye.’4
Even by the early 1750s, over a decade into his Roman sojourn, Vernet’s clients were still principally British, French and Roman, so an Austrian nobleman's patronage was something of an anomaly. In his early Roman career Vernet relied upon French patrons such as the ambassador Paul Hippolyte de Beauvillier, duc de Saint-Aignan (1684–1776). Soon the Roman nobility recognised his talent and they too were regular patrons; he painted, for example, a series of major marines for Don Giacomo Borghese (Galleria Borghese, Rome). His livre de verité, or account book, is dominated by British, French and Roman patrons before Von Harrach arrived.
While his landscapes have a classical feel to them, and indeed draw on the classical tradition of landscape painting of Claude Lorrain, Poussin and Salvator Rosa from the previous century, Vernet provided the contemporary collector with what seemed to be more vivid and convincing impressions of nature than those of his predecessors. Often, as here, he produced his paintings in pairs or sets, contrasting one effect of nature with another: evening light and moonlight; afternoon calm and heavy storm. And unlike the landscapes of Panini, Hubert Robert and others of his contemporaries, which are often overtly classical in nature, and inspired no doubt by the recent unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Vernet strained for something altogether more realistic, more up-to-date and contemporary. We may look at them now, from our far-removed vantage point in the modern world, and see something evocative of classical times, but at the time they were seen as completely modern, and their precise and highly detailed rendering of nature and its effects was totally in tune with the yearning for scientific discovery that the Enlightenment sought. Indeed, so acute were Vernet’s skills of observation that according to some contemporary critics, including Diderot, the excellence of his figure drawing and his mastery of gesture and expression brought his works close to the much more greatly admired genre of history painting. His great Ports of France series, commissioned from Vernet by Louis XV the year after he completed this pair of works, has commonly been likened to history painting, given the authority and exactness with which the topography, local shipping and seaport life are portrayed.5 Those paintings have become invaluable documents for both the social and economic historian.
These two paintings, Le soir and Clair de lune, painted at the beginning of Vernet’s most successful decade, together constitute a remarkable synthesis of naturalism, observation, narrative and technical brilliance that ranks them amongst the finest such works he ever produced.
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 consisted primarily of 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, Salvator Rosa and most importantly, Claude Lorrain. His first independent work, a series of landscape overdoors, is recorded in 1731.6 His early talent caught 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. It was this trip that would make his reputation and ensure his legacy as France’s, indeed Europe’s, finest painter of views.
Vernet arrived in Rome in 1734. The artist's introduction into papal circles was facilitated by his early years in Avignon (still a papal territory), where his work had brought him into contact with a number of important churchmen. Vernet soon integrated himself within the French artistic community that thrived in Rome. He was granted access into the Académie 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.7 During these early years in Rome, Vernet became best known for his 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 and European visitors undertaking the Grand Tour; Roman nobles and churchmen; and French diplomats.
Though best known for his large decorative marines, Vernet did paint a small number of topographical works in the 1740s. He honed his skills as a topographical artist on famous views of the city such as the Ponte Rotto and Castel Sant'Angelo and later in the decade painted the magnificent View of the Bay of Naples.8 His studies of certain edifices are the foundations for much of the imaginary architecture in his non-topographical works.
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 Directeur des Bâtiments, visited Vernet’s studio in Rome as part of his Grand Tour. This was a particularly fortuitous visit for Vernet for it is likely that during this visit discussions were held about the artist's return to France and an imminent major Royal commission. So was to start the most important decade of his career. The Von Harrach paintings constitute one of the last major private commissions before his time was to be devoted to painting, for Louis XV, a series of huge canvases depicting the Ports of France in all their glory. He worked on these from 1753 until 1765 when, having completed fifteen of a probable twenty-four expected, he finally gave up. Though he was supposed to be exclusively devoted to the King’s commission during this time, the delays in payments from the Crown and the added expenses he incurred in having to travel from port to port with his family meant that Vernet often took up private commissions in each port city, much to the chagrin of the Marquis de Marigny, who repeatedly chastised the artist for his slow progress on the commission. Nonetheless the Ports of France series was to be, for both Louis XV and Vernet, the most important artistic commission of their lifetimes. Vernet remained busy to the end of his life, fulfilling commissions until the year of his death. After 1770 however, though remaining popular, his work – as noted by Diderot – would come to rely more on well-tried formulas, becoming somewhat repetitive, a perennial problem for any successful and popular artist.
Ernst Guido, Graf von Harrach (1723–1783; fig. 4) was one of the preeminent art patrons and collectors of the 18th century. At the age of twenty-five he inherited the outstanding collection started by his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Bonaventura, Graf von Harrach (1636–1706), ambassador to Madrid, which had been added to by his grandfather and father. Like his ancestors, Ernst Guido both patronised contemporary artists and expressed a particular admiration for Roman painting, acquiring works by Panini, Bonavia, Manglard and Conca, among others. 1751 was a particularly busy year for Ernst Guido in this regard, for in addition to the present pair, he commissioned four further works from Vernet (fig. 2),9 as well as two large canvases from Gian Paolo Panini and a Susanna and the Elders from Pompeo Batoni, which was sold recently at Sotheby’s, New York for $11.3m (fig. 3). Much of the collection remains today at Schloss Rohrau, the Von Harrach family’s ancestral home since 1524, situated between Vienna and Bratislava. The collection includes such gems as the eponymous work by the Master of the Female Half-Lengths that depicts three ladies, at half-length, playing musical instruments, a Holy Family by night by Anton Raphael Mengs, as well as a masterpiece by Vernet’s teacher Adrian Manglard.
The inscription on Le Soir ('WF37') corresponds to its original inventory number as catalogued by Gruss (1856), and cited by Gerisch & Specek (1897) in brackets. Clair de Lune carried the number WF41.
1. We see the general mise-en-scène of the foreground quay, with the discarded canon, anchor, barrels and boxes in his large 1776-dated work sold New York, Sotheby’s, 27 January 2011, lot 183.
2. Lagrange 1864, p. 49.
3. F. Arisi, Gian Paolo Panini e i fasti della Roma del ’700, Rome 1986, pp. 213 and 441, cat. nos 423 and 424, both reproduced. Arisi records that they were completed on 28 July 1751 and were paid for the following year (120 scudi).
4. P. Conisbee, in Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia and Houston 2000, p. 452.
5. Now preserved in Paris at the Musée du Louvre and the Musée National de la Marine.
6. P. Conisbee, in The Grove Dictionary of Art, London 1996, p. 331.
7. Published in L. Lagrange, Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1864.
8. All three are in the Louvre, Paris. See L. Manoeuvre and E. Rieth, Joseph Vernet. Les Ports de France, Paris 1994, pp. 21, 24 and 25.
9. Ingersoll-Smouse 1926, cat. nos 351, 351bis, 352 and 352bis.