Claude-Joseph Vernet | A Mediterranean Port with many Figures and a Moored Levantine Galley, A French Man of War Beyond



(Paris 1714 - Avignon 1789)
A Mediterranean Port with many Figures and a Moored Levantine Galley, A French Man of War Beyond
Signed and dated LL: Joseph/Vernet f./1748
Oil on canvas
52.8 x 98.6 cm.; 20¾ x 38¾ in


Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (1748-1813), Paris;
His sale Paris, Lebrun and Balbastre, 27 September 1806, lot 143bis;
M. Delâtre, Vaucluse;
His posthumous sale, Paris, Paillet, 7 December 1835, lot 31, for 305 francs;
Anonymous sale, Paris, Audap-Solanet, Godeau-Veillet, 15 December 1995, lot 81, for 730,000 francs;
With Giacomo Algranti, London;
From whom acquired by the present owner in 1997.

F. Ingersoll-Smousse, Joseph Vernet, Paris 1926, vol. I, p. 52, no. 208.


T he first recorded owner of this canvas, the great French painter, art critic, collector and dealer, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (1748-1813), had no doubts as to its quality or pre-eminence in Vernet’s career. He described it as ‘….d’une belle harmonie, d’un effet éclatant et d’une touche fine, spirituelle et delicate….’ (‘…of a beautiful harmony, of striking effect and of a light touch, spiritual and delicate…’) and felt that ‘il doit être regardé comme un des plus précieux ouvrages sortis du pinceau de ce grand peintre’ (‘it should be regarded as one of the most valuable works from the brush of this great painter’).1 Lebrun, one of the great connoisseurs of his day, was no mean judge of the artist, and had handled Vernet’s estate sale after his death in 1790. Painted in Rome in 1748, during what was probably the finest and most fertile part of his career, this peaceful evocation of the activity in a sunlit Mediterranean port exemplifies the type of scene that made Vernet’s name, and which would make him one of the most sought after landscape painters of his day in the whole of Europe.

By the time this canvas was painted Vernet had been living in Rome since 1734. No doubt the beneficiary of the fact that his birthplace of Avignon was still then a Papal territory, he seems to have enjoyed good connections from his arrival. Among his most notable early patrons, for example, was Paul-Hippolyte, Duc de Saint-Aignan, French Ambassador to Rome and himself a keen patron of young French painters in the city. Vernet had also been welcomed into the Academie de France in Rome by its president Nicolas Vleughels and was later elected to the Accademia di San Luca in 1743. When he came to paint the present picture, Vernet was arguably at the height of his powers, and many critics regard his works from this later Roman period as the finest of his career. Charles Paillet, for example, writing in the sale catalogue of 1835 described this picture as an example of ‘la plus belle epoque du talent de ce grand peintre’ (‘the period which best displays the skill of this great painter’) and cited Lebrun’s opinion that it was ‘une de ses meilleures productions’ (‘one of his finest works’). Important recent commissions, for example, had included a view of the Villa Farnese painted in 1746 for Elizabeth Farnese, wife of Philip V of Spain, today in Philadelphia, and a pair of views of the Bay of Naples painted in the same year as the present work, 1748, for François-Claude de Montboissier, Abbé de Canillac, the French Chargé d’affaires in Rome, and now in the Louvre. As the present canvas shows, by this date Vernet had also begun to move away from purely topographical views in favour of the idealised harbours, coastal scenes and shipwrecks increasingly favoured by the numerous Grand Tourists in Rome (and the British in particular), of which he became the supreme exponent, and the present canvas is an outstanding example of his works in this vein. Such views were imaginatively constructed and liberally sprinkled with elements or ricordi (recollections) of the journeys and sights seen by these travellers – in the present case the old harbours and fortresses of Ostia, Livorno and Naples – rendered with a poetic sense of atmosphere and light, together with a light seasoning of Claudean classicism that appealed to their cultural aspirations. Typically, the view here is further enlivened by well-observed and beautifully painted groups of figures, an important and often overlooked facet of Vernet’s style, and the introduction of a large and exotic Levantine galley. Vernet’s success was immediate and the popularity and demand for his works increasingly widespread. By the time he was recalled to France in 1753 in order to paint the famous series of the Ports of France for Louis XVI, the commission by which he is best remembered, he was well on the way to becoming the leading landscape and marine painter of Europe, a position he would retain for another thirty years.

1 Lebrun, in the catalogue of his sale in Paris, 27 September 1806.

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