Lot 65
  • 65

CLAUDE-JOSEPH VERNET | Morning: a Mediterranean harbour scene with fishermen laying out their nets; Evening: a Mediterranean harbour scene with fishermen and their catch

1,800,000 - 2,200,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Claude-Joseph Vernet
  • Morning: a Mediterranean harbour scene with fishermen laying out their nets; Evening: a Mediterranean harbour scene with fishermen and their catch
  • signed on the former, lower left, on a bale: Joseph Vernet/ fecit massiliæ; and signed and dated on the latter, lower left: J. Vernet. f. 1756. 
  • a pair, both oil on canvas, unlined;
    inscription in a nineteenth-century hand affixed to the stretcher of Morning, with incorrect date: fait à Marseille par Joseph Vernet en 1754/ sortant du cabinet de Mr. de Fontainieu
  • the former: 100.6 x 136.6 cm.; 39 5/8  x 53 3/4  in.; the latter 99.1 x 135.5 cm.; 39 x 53 3/8  in.



Commissioned in 1753 from the artist by Joseph-Marc-Roch de Barrigue de Fontainieu (1721–1807), place Noailles, Marseilles, for 100 écus each; paid 300 écus for both;

Paris, Galerie Charpentier, 24 March 1955, lot 40, reproduced pl. XIV (offered without its pendant, only Morning is described [wrongly as a sunset and wrongly as dated 1754]);1

Private collection;

With Simon Dickinson, London;

From whom acquired by the present owner in 1998.


J. Vernet, Livre de raison, Médiathèque Ceccano, Avignon, Ms 2321, fol. 36 r.: ‘Pr Mr de Fontainieu deux tableaux toile d’empereur... 300’; fol. 52 r.: Mr Fontainieu place de Noailles a Marseilles deux tableaux toille d’empereur des sujets a ma fantaisie reppresentants des marines auxquels je donneray la hauteur de la Toile suivant ce que je jugeray a propos ordonnez au mois de mars 1753 et promis le plutot que je pourray le prix est de cent Ecus Romains (chaque) qui fonts 1050 l. (les deux)’;

L. Lagrange, Les Vernet. Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1864, pp. 64, 337 and 362 under no. 63;

F. Ingersoll-Smouse, Joseph Vernet, peintre de Marine (1714–1789), étude critique suivie d’un catalogue raisonné de son œuvre peint, avec trois cent cinquante-sept reproductions, Paris 1926, vol. I, p. 80, nos 574–75;

E. Beck Saiello, ‘De l’aristocratie du négoce aux cercles de l’Academie: les réseaux marseillais de Joseph Vernet’, in Marseille au XVIIIe siècle. Les années de l’Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture 1753–1793, exh. cat., L. Georget (ed.), Musée des Beaux-arts, Marseilles, 2016, pp. 50 and 60.

Catalogue Note

This pair of Mediterranean scenes – in beautiful condition, the canvases unlined – was painted during Vernet’s sojourn in Marseilles and is signed and dated 1756. Here Vernet captures the nuances of light and atmosphere in compositions that are elegant and balanced. Painted on canvases termed by the artist ‘toiles d’empereur’, they are on the standardised canvas size that he favoured for large pictures. The commission from the original owner of the pair, Monsieur de Fontainieu, a collector–connoisseur in Marseilles, is recorded by the artist in his ‘livre de raison’. The scenes are as remarkable for their rich narrative detail as for their technical and observational brilliance.

Born in Avignon in 1714, Claude-Joseph received his early training under the tutelage of his father Antoine (1689–1753) and later in the studio of Philippe Sauvan (1697–1792), the leading master in the city. After this apprenticeship Vernet moved to Aix-en-Provence to work with the marine and landscape painter Jacques Vialy (1650–1745), before travelling to Rome in 1734 under the patronage of the French nobleman Joseph de Seytres, Marquis de Caumont (1688–1745). There he established himself as a landscape and marine painter and soon integrated himself with the thriving French community. His works became highly sought after not only by his compatriots but also by a diverse range of patrons, who included the Roman nobility, churchmen and British visitors undertaking the Grand Tour. He lived in Italy until 1753, when he settled definitively in France, also the year that Vernet was received as a full member by the Académie royale de Peinture in Paris. Vernet returned briefly to his birthplace, Avignon, in 1753 and then again in 1756, the year he began his only recorded view of the city (fig. 1), a magnificent painting that was acquired in 2003 at Sotheby’s by the Musée du Louvre, Paris.2 The same year he started work on the Avignon painting he signed and dated this pair of Mediterranean harbour scenes.

These paintings were commissioned in March 1753 on Vernet’s return to Marseilles from Paris by Joseph-Marc-Roch de Barrigue de Fontainieu (1721–1807), resident there. Ever since 1738 during his busy and successful years in Rome, Vernet had kept a record book of his commissions, his ‘livre de raison’. These paintings are recorded in that book: ‘Mr Fontainieu place de Noailles a Marseilles deux tableaux toille d’empereur des sujets a ma fantaisie reppresentants des marines auxquels je donneray la hauteur de la Toile suivant ce que je jugeray a propos ordonnez au mois de mars 1753 et promis le plutot que je pourray le prix est de cent Ecus Romains (chaque) qui fonts 1050 l. (les deux)’.3

Vernet agreed the size and the price for the pair of marines with M. de Fontainieu but was given freedom in the choice of subject matter. He undertook to deliver the paintings ‘as soon as he could’. Florence Ingersoll-Smouse, author of the catalogue raisonné on Vernet published in 1926, believed wrongly that they were finished the following year and so dated them to 1754 but in fact the paintings were not completed until 1756 (the Harbour scene at sunset is dated thus at the lower left). This delay appears not to have harmed Vernet’s rapport with his client; on the contrary the evidence indicates that they maintained good relations over the course of many years – Vernet paid Fontainieu a visit to wish him a happy new year in 1779 – and Fontainieu was instrumental in securing commissions from other collectors, as well as adding works by Vernet to his own collection.4 Fontainieu was an amateur, art lover, Honorary Member of the Académie royale de Peinture in Paris since 1743 and member of the Académie de Peinture et de Sculpture de Marseilles from 1756. He is described in Léon Lagrange’s book of 1864 as owning a fine collection of paintings of three schools (French, Italian and Dutch), which included works by Guercino, Salvator Rosa and Rembrandt, as well as a fine collection of works on paper. For the present pair, Fontainieu paid Vernet 300 écus, well in excess of the agreed sum of 200 écus.5 

Vernet painted this pair of Mediterranean harbour scenes while he was working on the most important commission of his career, the Ports of France, a vastly ambitious project initiated by Abel-François Poisson de Vandières (1727–1781), later Marquis de Marigny and Directeur des Bâtiments, for King Louis XV. Vernet’s task was to depict a set of probably twenty-four oversize topographical views of all the major military and commercial seaports in France as a visual demonstration of her maritime power. The whole series was never completed but fifteen paintings were executed and exhibited at the Paris Salon between 1755 and 1765.6 Of these, seven were finished by the end of 1756 during one of the most intense periods of activity in Vernet’s life. He began in 1753, travelling extensively throughout the French coast, producing views of sea-ports from Antibes to La Rochelle and as far north as Dieppe. The two earliest port scenes for the series were of Marseilles; both are dated 1754. One shows the Entrance to the Port of Marseilles viewed from the sea (Musée du Louvre, Paris), while the other, the Interior of the Port of Marseilles, depicts the quayside as a hive of activity (Musée national de la Marine, Paris; fig. 2).7 The Ports of France commission dominated Vernet’s first decade back in France and it is against this backdrop that the pair of Mediterranean views was painted.

At the lower left of Morning, on a bale tied with rope, Vernet signs his name with the inscription ‘fecit massiliæ’, the city’s Latin name, thereby proclaiming that he made them in Marseilles. France’s foremost commercial port, Marseilles was a rich and vibrant city. From here French trade extended not just across the Ottoman Empire but also to Libya and North Africa, as well as Italy and Spain. Vernet settled in the city with his family in March 1753, following a number of spells there. In August that year he travelled to Paris for his admission to the Académie royale and not long after, he received the royal commission to paint the Ports of France. By the autumn he was back in Marseilles and set to work. During the years spent labouring on the sea-ports, Vernet often took up private commissions, with the inevitable delays, as was the case with this pair of paintings.

These pendants depict harbour scenes in the morning and evening.8 Two light sources are described: at the beginning of the day, the sun illuminates the first from the left, while at the day’s end, the sun sets to the right of the second. Together they form a harmonious whole, the light meticulously balanced. In each scene, a lighthouse marks the harbour entrance. Morning is framed on the left by the ruined columns of a classical building, while on the right, in Evening, a three-storey gateway of a more rustic character encloses the scene. In the left-hand scene, a ramp rises up from the quayside to a portal in the city walls; beside it stands an imposing round fortified tower. In the pendant, a single storey classical building – perhaps a customs house – catches the evening light across the water. In Morning, a French merchantman may be preparing to lower anchor; rowing boats unload her cargo; figures have disembarked; while in Evening, a British man-of-war is getting underway. In Morning boxes and barrels and even cannon lie on the stone paving, while in the other scene, as well as barrels, large mounds of rope, painted in contre-jour, catch the eye. A fishing boat is stowed for the night. By portraying many of these incidental items in shadow Vernet prevents them detracting from the vistas beyond while at the same time adding visual interest.

Unlike the landscapes of Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691–1765), Hubert Robert (1733–1808) and other contemporaries, which are overtly classical in nature, Vernet aimed for a more contemporary and realistic result. As with so many of Vernet’s compositions the foreground is enlivened by the activities of the local people. Around the shore are fishermen with lines, nets and harpoons. In the centre of one scene a group of local fishermen gather their nets. In the other, a large lidded pot is cooking away over a makeshift fire. Baskets are laden with fish and men and women linger to talk. A man slumped against one of the columns adds a humorous note. The precision of the drawing is evident in details such as the silhouetted figures in the middle distance, while in the foreground the clothing of a female figure beautifully drawn with lively colouring catches the evening light. In the pendant an elegant couple in Ottoman dress is engaged in conversation. They are given directions by a swarthy man who places his hand on the woman’s shoulder in an overly familiar manner – an amusing touch typical of the artist. Vernet introduces similar exotic figures in other paintings, notably in his view of Marseilles, where their presence is indicative of the international trade radiating from the port’s busy centre.

Vernet often produced his paintings in pairs or sets, contrasting different times of day and weather conditions: evening light and moonlight; afternoon calm and heavy storm; morning and evening, as here. The concept of pairing differing times of day was already found in the work of his celebrated predecessor, Claude Lorrain (1604/05[?]–1682) but Vernet achieved unprecedented results with striking effects of light and colour. Here the range of tones used to paint the calm sea is beautifully nuanced and the large expanses of sky that dominate the compositions give a strong sense of light, space and grandeur.

1 It seems that only one of the two scenes – Morning – was offered in this sale. It is not known whether it sold. It is possible that having failed to sell it was reunited with its pendant. When with Simon Dickinson in 1998, the pair was sold with the following provenance: Joseph Autran [1813–1877], Marseilles, from the 1840s and by descent until 1960; Countess René de Gramont and Count Jacques de Miramon Fitz-James [siblings born respectively in 1937 and 1934], Paris.

2 99 x 182.7 cm.; sold Sotheby’s, London, 3 July 2013, lot 39, for £4,700,000.

3 Médiathèque Ceccano, Avignon, Ms 2321, fol. 52 r; transcribed by Emilie Beck Saiello.

4 For Vernet’s network of patrons in Marseilles see Beck Saiello in Marseilles 2016, pp. 48–75; on Fontainieu in particular see p. 52. Médiathèque Ceccano, Avignon, Ms 2322, fol. 106; Ms 2323, fol. 225. Also Lagrange 1864, p. 350, under no. 249, pp. 413, 481 and 484 (which lists a pair of Roman views by Vernet owned by Fontainieu).

5 Médiathèque Ceccano, Avignon, Ms 2321, fol. 36 r: ‘Pr Mr de Fontainieu deux tableaux toile d’empereur... 300’.

6 See L. Manœuvre and E. Rieth, Joseph Vernet 1714–1789. Les Ports de France, Paris 1994, pp. 43–145.

7 Each 165 x 263 cm.; inv. nos 8293 and 8294, the latter on loan to the Musée national de la Marine, no. 5 OA 3D. Ingersoll-Smouse 1926, vol. I, p. 79, cat. nos 566 and 568, figs 121 and 122; reproduced in colour in Manœuvre and Rieth 1994, pp. 79–80 and 87–88.

8 The left-hand scene is wrongly identified as a sunset in the Charpentier sale catalogue of 1955.