On retirement



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I was fortunate in that I did not retire suddenly, therefore unprepared. Even before my last full five years of employment, I had survived doing contract work for public art galleries and museums in Western Canada. I even did a bit of teaching, which was a learning experience. It probably enriched me more than my students.

Throughout my life, the arts have nourished me, most especially the visual arts, classical music, and the culinary arts. Nature and its proximity have always been important. I have sought its solace and am blessed in that I live in a beautiful valley, with orchards and vineyards. amidst ancient mountains. I have also been blessed with an appreciation of good food, thanks to my parents and perhaps to my French Canadian heritage. My sympathetic partner of many years, Merv, has shared this particular interest, to our mutual delight. All these things are the stuff of daily life to me… and bring me peace and tranquility.

Still Life I: Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670)


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garzoni - cherries

Giovanna Garzoni, Cherries in a Dish, a Pod, and a Bumblebee, ca. 1642-51. gouache on parchment, 24.5 x 37.5 cm, Galleria Paletina, Florence.

The cherries on the trees were just beginning to turn pink, when I first thought it was time to turn to this blog again. Seemed like a productive thing to do while I recovered from knee surgery at home. In an earlier blog this year [18  January 2015] I mentioned the marvellous late Renaissance Italian painter, Giovanna Garzoni, who specialized in still life paintings and miniatures. She is almost unknown even though she has been the subject of a couple of exhibitions and one modest book. Still life painters rarely get included in the canon of great artists, let alone female artists who worked with still life. All the more reason to celebrate them here!

I begin with Giovanna Garzoni because she was one of the earliest. In her case, still life painting comes out of natural history illustration, such as botanical art and scientific illustration. This was, after all, the late Renaissance where the study of the natural world through direct observation was an intellectual pursuit. This was also an age of inquiry where some effort was made to represent the natural world as realistically as possible. The aristocracy of the day who were the artist’s patrons had a considerable interest in the natural world, as they designed and constructed their gardens, importing plants from far off places and exotic lands.

Apparently her first commissioned work (from a pharmacist) was a Herbarium when she was 16 years of age. A fairly early marriage ended in an annulment as it seems Giovanna had already made a vow of chastity. As she had no man to support her and she did not join a religious order, she was totally dependent on aristocratic patronage, and this she seems to have been able to secure throughout her life. The appeal of her work on parchment using opaque watercolours (gouache) and the intimate nature of her small scale works found support, and these works even in reproduction provide an indication of her achievement.

garzoni peaches and a cucumber

Giovanna Garzoni, Peaches in a Dish  with Cucumber, n.d. gouache on parchment, 25 x 36 cm, Galleria Paletina, Florence.

The colour of the peaches is most lovingly rendered. The cucumber looks a bit strange, but may be a variety foreign to North American markets. The leaves show signs of insect damage.


Giovanna Garzoni, Still Life with Pears and a Butterfly, n.d. gouache on parchment, 17 x 23.5 cm, Dorotheum, Vienna.

Apparently an earlier work by the artist, the pears seem a bit artificial, while the butterfly is possibly pinned to the wall rather than in flight. One characteristic of a Garzoni still life is the tight grouping of the fruit on a table or in a bowl, along with the leaves of the tree fruit. The inclusion of the leaves may be a characteristic of botanical illustration.

garzoni - figs

Giovanna Garzoni, A Plate of Figs, 1652. gouache on parchment, 26 x 38 cm, Galleria Paletina, Florence.

garzoni - figs2

Giovanna Garzoni, Figs in a Chinese Bowl, with Cherries and a Goldfinch, n.d. gouache on parchment, 26 x 38 cm, Galleria Paletina, Florence.

A number of works feature figs, and others contain birds pecking at the fruit. The figs are in an imported blue and white Chinese bowl, no doubt owned by her aristocratic patrons. The figs are literally bursting in their ripeness.

garzoni - beans

Giovanna Garzoni, Beans in a Dish, n.d. gouache on parchment, 24.5 x 34.5 cm, Galleria Paletina, Florence.

Almost bursting out of their pods, these beans are shown in a simple earthenware dish, with a worn rim, along with some beans, leaves, and some carnations.

garzoni - plums and walnuts

Giovanna Garzoni, Plums in a Dish with Jasmine and Walnuts, n.d. gouache on parchment, 23.5 x 38.5 cm, Galleria Paletina, Florence.

Apparently plums, although they look like some type of small pear to me.  White jasmine flowers are also included. The bluish flowers seem to be some type of Morning Glory. A cracked walnut is also offered.


Giovanna Garzoni, Melon on a Plate with Grapes and a Snail, ca. 1642-51, gouache on parchment, 35.5 x 49.5 cm x 38 cm, Galleria Paletina, Florence.

A melon is presented on an old earthenware plate, along with a knife that has been used to cut a wedge from it. Melon seeds also appear, as well as grapes. A very realistic fly on the melon demonstrates the painter’s skill at verisimilitude. A snail appears on a a stem as well. In many ways, such still life painting may evoke the story of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis whose painting of grapes was so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them.

Giovanna Garzoni lived and worked in a time when still life painting was just coming to the fore, although it was always considered a minor branch of painting.  The 17th century also produced brilliant still life painters in the Netherlands, and many are far better known that Garzoni.  But there is a quiet charm to her small-scale work which is often not present in the work of her Dutch contemporaries who seem to revel in displays of virtuosity.

I have always loved still life painting and sought it out in galleries and museums I have visited through the years. I will return to the subject of still-life painting in further posts.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015



Trkulja, Silvia M. & Fumagalli, Elena. Still Lifes – Giovanna Garzoni. Paris: Bibliothèque de l’Image, 2000.

A slide show of Giovanna Garzoni’s work can be seen on YouTube, unfortunately without details. Some of the pictures also lack clarity, but it is still worth viewing.

Joseph Vernet (1718-1789)–Part III–The French Port Series


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I suppose my choice of Joseph Vernet as the subject of no less than three posts on this blog might be seen as questionable. It is not my intention to attract hundreds of readers by writing about the Impressionists or Vincent Van Gogh, but to present and discuss artists whose work is significant and provides a context to the work of better known artists. I have never believed in a “greatest hits” approach to my personal research or curatorial endeavours, and have always found great satisfaction in discovering artists lesser known today, but whose work is nonetheless worthy of attention and study. Vernet fits the bill admirably.

He was, by all accounts, a modest man, but witty and well-educated; he functioned well in a society where notable people held “salons” for intelligent discussion on a wide range of subjects such as philosophy and literature. An evening’s entertainment might also include musical and dramatic performances. There is even some evidence that during his stay in Italy, Vernet befriended the young Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) and that Pergolesi performed the opening of his famous Stabat Mater on Vernet’s harpsichord in 1736. The autographed manuscript of its opening bars was one of Vernet’s treasured possessions until the day of his own death in 1789.

This was the Age of Enlightenment in France, and we have to imagine Vernet in this social context, as well as in the more solitary activity of the artist sketching in nature, and working on his large canvases of the ports of France in the studio.

He began work on the French ports of the Atlantic in 1757, as part of a larger royal commission to paint all the ports of France.




Joseph Vernet: Première vue de Bordeaux : prise du côté des Salinières, 1758, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris

port-bordeaux-f Joseph Vernet: Deuxième vue de Bordeaux : prise du château Trompette, 1759, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Vernet arrived in Bordeaux in May of 1757, and he and his family were to stay there for two years. They were well received by Bordeaux society, and Vernet also received small commissions which contributed to the well-being of his family.

By then, the Seven Years War (1756-1763) was in progress, and to us in Canada the War had serious repercussions, as France lost her North American colonies to Great Britain in a series of decisive battles: Louisbourg (1758), Québec (1759) and Montréal (1760). It is during this critical period that Vernet was painting his series on the ports of France. This was no doubt part of the reason he had to obtain all kinds of authorizations to sketch the ports, a source of delays and frustrations. The Seven Years War which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. By then, King Louis XV had apparently uttered that there were more French ships in Vernet’s paintings than in its Navy.

Vernet decided that two views of Bordeaux would best represent the activities of this important port.  He suggested that both views would be from the Chateau Trompette, the first featuring the chateau itself, along with a grand view of the city and the port. The other view was on the other side, towards the port for foreign vessels. He was amiably received by the Marquis de Tourny who was in charge of the many changes taking place in the port at the time. While it was decided that the buildings would be painted as could then be seen, by the time the the paintings were finished, Vernet had more or less represented the buildings as if completed, with more vessels in port, and the setting would be in peace time. The official instructions had mentioned that the export of French wines was an important activity in this port.

Both paintings were ready to be sent by special  courier to the Marquis de Marigny in Paris by July 1759, who was delighted with the results. They were shown in the Salon of 1759, and attracted favourable comments, including from Denis Diderot who found in the works of Vernet imagination, fire, wisdom, colour, detailing and variety. Apparently there were no less than 14 or 15 works by Vernet at the Salon that year.



Joseph Vernet: Première vue de Bayonne, prise à mi-côte sur le glacis de la Citadelle, 1760, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris



Joseph Vernet: Deuxième vue de Bayonne, prise de l’allée des Boufflers, près de la porte de Mousserole, 1761, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Vernet at first intended to leave his family in Bordeaux while painting his intended view of Bayonne, where he arrived in July of 1759, but he was delighted with the city and since the cost of living was cheaper, he decided to bring his wife and two sons to Bayonne. He also decided on two separate views of Bayonne, because once again, a single painting would present a very incomplete view of the port, and Marigny agreed to two paintings. Delays in payment apparently contributed to the delays in completing these works since Vernet once again had no choice but to accept other commissions to make ends meet.

The works were sent to Paris in June of 1761 and were exhibited at the Salon. Diderot, in his critique, regretted that the time of day chosen for these works, sunset, obscured much of the activity and the figures painted in the foreground. While the official instructions had suggested the motif of privateers returning to port with their prizes (as they had been very successful at this during the Seven Years War), Vernet chose to represent local activities and entertainments. Rather than depicting a storm as suggested, Vernet chose the calm of sunset. 

La Rochelle


Joseph Vernet: Vue du port de La Rochelle, prise de la petite Rive, 1762, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris 



Joseph Vernet: Vue du port de Rochefort, prise du Magasin des Colonies, 1762, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris

By July 7, 1761, Vernet had moved on to La Rochelle. Because of swamps near Rochefort (not too distant from La Rochelle in any case) Vernet was concerned about epidemics and intended on working in Rochefort only during the ‘healthy’ season. He would stay in Rochefort twice—in November of 1761 and in February of 1762. While all the studies for the paintings of La Rochelle and Rochefort were done over the period of less than a year, at long last a studio vacancy in the Louvre occurred and Vernet was authorized and encouraged to move to Paris where he could complete the views from his studies and sketches. This he did in July and the paintings were finished by the time Vernet turned to the painting of Dieppe.

The views of Rochefort (in the morning) and La Rochelle (at sunset) were extremely well received both at court and upon their exhibition at the Salon of 1763.



Joseph Vernet: Vue du Port de Dieppe, 1765, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Vernet finally settled in Paris in 1762. The original commission had  included many of the ports of the Atlantic, but after Bordeaux, Bayonne, La Rochelle, Rochefort, had been painted,  Vernet received  permission to do a painting of Dieppe, which was not on the original list.  He stayed in Dieppe for six weeks and was back in Paris before the end of October. He was delighted with Dieppe, a fishing port, and he worked on the painting in Paris, completing it in 1765, in time for the Salon of that year. By then, the commission was discontinued for lack of funds. The ports of Brittany and of Normandy would not be painted by Vernet.

Le Havre was only beginning to develop as a port of any significance, but had been on the list as were Calais, Dunkerque, Port Saint-Louis, Brest, Lorient and Saint-Malo.

Thirty years later, after Vernet’s death, the Revolutionary government commissioned the artist Jean-François Hue (1751-1823) in 1791 to complete the series, and so he painted three views of Brest, and views of Lorient, St-Malo, Granville and Boulogne. By all appearances, he lacked Vernet’s abilities, certainly as far as the treatment of water and the painting of figures.

While Hue had also been appointed as the French state’s official marine painter, there would be no marine painters in France achieving the fame and stature of Joseph Vernet.

He ended his days in Paris. He was never short of commissions, and although his work was in decline, his reputation had long been international, and the popularity of his work was only increased by its reproduction through the medium of engraving. He was not forgotten, and some notable biographies of his life were published during the 19th century, as well as appreciative commentaries on his work. No history of marine painting can omit the name of Joseph Vernet.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015 

Works consulted:

— “Works of the Great Masters. Joseph Vernet.” in The Illustrated Magazine of Art, Vol. 1. No. 4, 1853, pp. 192-202.

Delaborde, Henri. Le paysage et les paysagistes en France depuis le XVIIIe siècle: Joseph Vernet. 1852. (Kindle edition – STAReBOOKS edition, 2013.

Demarcq, Marie Pierre. Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) : Les vues des ports de France. Paris: Musée national de la Marine, 2003.

Lagrange, Léon. Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle. – Paris : Didier. – 1864.

Miger, Pierre-Auguste. Les Ports de France peints par Joseph Vernet et Jean-François Hue, Paris, Lenormand, 1812, 126 p.


A bibliography can be found on the website of the Musée national de la Marrine.

Joseph Vernet (1718-1789)–Part II–The French Port Series


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In my previous blog [19 April], I wanted to introduce Joseph Vernet more or less in the context of his time, as far as culture and ideas at least. So both ideas of the Sublime, and early Romanticism are part of the evolving visual culture during his career. It is the transition from the very orderly Baroque of Louis XIV’s long reign (1661-1715) to the more relaxed and pleasure-loving reign of Louis XV – the Rococo – and the emergence of Neoclassicism under the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792). Joseph Vernet’s position during his active career escapes these generalizations. While he certainly embraced the increased emotion occurring in the visual arts during his life span, he seems to have struggled at times with the demands of his patrons and the integrity of his vision and ideals. But his work was well received and he was very well-known in his day. He should be better known today, because he was indeed a very fine painter.


Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842) Portrait of Joseph Vernet, 1778, oil on canvas, 92 x 72 cm, Musée du Louvre.

Shortly after he returned to France in 1753 from his long sojourn in Italy, through the Marquis de Marigny, the King’s Superintendent of Royal Buildings(in charge of all the royal buildings and their contents) he was given the commission to create 24 paintings showing the Ports of France. This commission would occupy him for about 12 years (1753-1765) during which he executed 15 large paintings for the King. The terms of the Commission specified that he would be paid 6000 livres, this sum covering any expenses and travel to be incurred in the execution of the commission. While the commission might have been very prestigious and fairly lucrative, he still had to find time to paint other works for other patrons so that, as he said, he could continue to feed his family. He worked on the commission until no more funds were available for him to continue.

Because of the immense scope of the commission, one of most significant commissions in the 18th century, Vernet brought his family with him to the cities of Marseille, Toulon, Bayonne and Bordeaux where he established studios during the term of the commission. The expense of these moves must have been considerable, not to mention rather disruptive to his family life which meant a great deal to him. But the resulting 15 works he completed are really wonderful.  I long to see the originals in Paris. It would be worth the trip if I could afford the luxury! While I have been to Paris a number of times, I never visited the Musée national de la Marine, and new nothing then of Joseph Vernet.

The port paintings are in two groups. The first group consists of the ports on the Mediterranean (1754-57). The second consists of the ports on the Atlantic coast (1757-1765). This blog instalment will deal with the Mediterranean ports.



Joseph Vernet: L’entrée du port de Marseille, 1754, oil on canvas, 165 x 263 cm, Musée du Louvre


Joseph Vernet: Intérieur du port de Marseille, vue de l’Horloge du Parc, 1754, oil on canvas, 165 x 265 cm, Musée nationale de la Marine, Paris

The two paintings of the port of Marseille were the first to be completed. Vernet had first settled in Marseille in 1753 after his long stay in Italy, so he was in the right place to begin his series of port paintings. The first three paintings were executed in time to be exhibited at the Salon of 1755 in Paris. While the official instructions for these works suggested that the paintings should show the “considerable quantity of commercial buildings of all kinds, as well as all the nations that can continually be seen there,” Vernet delivers more than that.

The artist describes the Entrance to the Port of Marseille in these terms:

“The fortress of Saint Jean and the citadel of Saint Nicolas that defend this entrance can be seen. The painting shows the various amusements of the city’s inhabitants. In the foreground the artist has painted the portrait of a man aged 117 who enjoys good health.”

As for the Interior of the Port, Vernet writes:

“Since this port is the scene of the great commerce with Italy and the Levant, the artist has embellished the painting with figures from the different nations of the Ottoman port cities and those of North Africa, and others. He has combined the characteristics of a mercantile port with its extensive trade.”




Joseph Vernet: Vue du Golfe de Bandole – ‘La Madrague’ ou la pêche au thon, 1754, oil on canvas, 165 x 263 cm Musée nationale de la Marine

While he was working on the two Marseille canvases, he travelled a number of times to Bandol (a small port between Marseille and Toulon) and started the necessary sketches and studies for that canvas which he soon had underway. He lived in the castle overlooking the port, as had been suggested by the official instructions, suggesting “distinctive subjects characteristic of this location on the coast of Provence, one of which could be the tuna fishery, including its fixed nets (madrague)” suggesting the view from the castle.

The work was well underway by January of 1754.  It was also shown at the Salon of 1755, along with the two Marseille canvases. Throughout the Rococo period, contemporary critics valued the works of painters such as Vernet, Chardin and Greuze because of their sobriety. A work of art was expected to aspire to a higher moral purpose than the mere delight or titillation of the senses. In this case, the political purpose of the commission was to bring attention to the French navy and its commercial marine interests. This was especially important at a time when the French Navy suffered heavy losses during the Seven Years War with Britain (1756-1763).

Reaction to these initial canvases at the Salon of 1755 was very favourable.  One critic, Delaport, apparently lauded the example of Vernet and his depiction because it had the capacity to educate and inform the public, suggesting that such documents were far more useful than some of the frivolous (and useless) works of his contemporaries.



Vernet had moved his family to Toulon by the fall of 1754, and he soon started the series of three works showing different aspects of this most important port. He would stay in Toulon until the spring of 1756. It had long been a military installation, and Vernet’s instructions were to document different aspects of the port, suggesting that at least three paintings could be created. It was suggested that the first could represent two docks, featuring the launching of a warship, and the tasks related to the equipping of a naval squadron. The second could show a squadron of twenty ships preparing to leave the harbour. The third could represent the return of a squadron to the harbour in stormy weather.

Such instructions were often authored by officials associated with the ports, and Vernet often complained about them to the Marquis de Marigny.


Joseph Vernet: Première vue de Toulon: vue du Port-Neuf, prise de l’angle du parc d’artillerie, 1755, oil on canvas, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris.

Vernet’s own commentary on this particular work which was ready in time for the Salon of 1755 is as follows:  “This view was preferred in that the principal components of the port can be seen. This being a military port, the artillery park is featured in the foreground of the painting.”


Joseph Vernet: Deuxième vue de Toulon: vue de la ville et de la rade, 1756, oil on canvas, 165 x 263 cm, Musée du Louvre

Vernet’s commentary for the catalogue of the Salon of 1757 explains his choice of view. “This view is taken from a country house half-way up the mountain behind the city. It shows the amusements of the inhabitants and the conveyances they use to get to the country houses, known as  ‘bastides.’ The time of day is the morning.”


Joseph Vernet: Troisième vue de Toulon: La vieille darse, prise du côté des magasins aux vivres, 1756, oil on canvas, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Also, shown at the Salon of 1757, Vernet described this view was follows: “The view is taken from the food warehouses and the foreground shows the provisions being taken aboard the King’s vessels. In the background can be seen a part of the Port Neuf. The time of day is at sunset.”  The official suggestion of a squadron returning to the port in a storm had been disregarded completely.



After the Toulon works were completed by April of 1756, Vernet travelled to Antibes alone to work on this particular work. He undertook the usual sketches and preliminary work but did not complete the work until he had moved on to Sète, his family staying in Toulon. He was already working on the Sète canvas, but wrote that the Antibes work had been completed by January of 1757.


Joseph Vernet: Le Port d’Antibes en Provence, vue du côté de la terre, 1756, oil on canvas, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris

This work was also exhibited at the Salon of 1757, and accompanied by this descriptive note by Vernet: “As this is a border port of France near the Italian coast, the foreground shows the soldiers of the garrison that is located there. The countryside has plenty of orange trees and palm trees which are quite common in this area. The blossoms and the fruit of the orange trees are characteristic of the end of the spring season. The Alps, still snow-capped, can also be seen. The view of the mountains in the background is that between Nice and Villefranche extending to San Remo. The hour of the day is the sunset.”



Vernet’s subject matter in Sète had been suggested by a Mr. Pelerin, a Navy official, and Vernet was unequivocal about his reaction. “He may well have a sound opinion on a number of things, but certainly not in the matter of producing a beautiful painting. Most of the ports he has described in a similar fashion, and I did not follow the instructions, certainly not for the port of Antibes, and even less so here [in Sète].” The instructions apparently often described a panoramic description that would not have provided a good view.

Vernet expressed his dislike of Sète in no uncertain terms.  In a letter to the marquis de Marigny, dated 6th of Septmber, 1756,he wrote: “It would be useless for me to set up residence in this miserable town, where I would not be comfortable for painting, and if I see that living there would not be necessary, I could probably paint the picture in Bordeaux.”  Marigny, however, thought otherwise: “I must bring to your attention that the King is paying for these paintings and that he expects you to bring to them all the perfection you can muster, and that they would be best completed on location. Thus, I expect you to finish your painting of the port of Cette at Cette and nowhere else.” Does the stormy scene reflect Vernet’s sentiments? It is the only port shown in a storm of the entire series.


Joseph Vernet: Vue du port de Cette [sic], 1756-57, oil on canvas, 165 x 263 cm, Musée national de la Marine, Paris.

The view of Sète was shown at the Salon of 1857 and is accompanied by this commentary by Vernet: “As this port is at the end of the Gulf of Lyon and the sea there is often turbulent, due to the south wind, a stormy scene is represented, with vessels making extraordinary manoeuvres to enter the port with the prevailing wind. In the foreground, a Maltese brigantine, surprised by the wind, and not having been able to get to port, or to pass beyond the jetty, has opted to beach itself and manoeuvres accordingly. The time of day is ten in the morning.”

Vernet’s process in creating these large paintings was that of making many preliminary small sketches and studies, and then setting to work on the large canvas more or less directly, without a preliminary sketch on the same scale. As he later wrote to a potential patron in 1765, “My method of working consists of composing on the canvas what has to be done and to start painting as soon as I can to take advantage of the heat of my imagination.” He wanted to preserve the freshness of the sketch in the large work. He thought that the work would be cold otherwise, and he was quite adamant that he be left free if he was to provide his best work, beyond the general subject of the work, such as a landscape, or seascape, a moonlit scene, a sunset, etc.

As for the task of sending his work to the Salon, he would roll the paintings up and ship them, where they could be unrolled and put onto a stretcher and suitably framed in Paris. He requested that they should not be kept rolled for too long, nor be subject to excessive travel to avoid any damage. He also preferred a more classical frame to one with a lot of baroque ornamentation, featuring a cartouche containing in few words what the painting was about, and even suggesting that such straight forms would no doubt remain in fashion for a longer period of time.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015


The primary source for this series of essays is from the website of the Musée national de la Marine, Paris. This features a virtual exhibition (in French only) on Vernet’s commission to paint the ports of France, and this has provided most of the information on this series of wonderful works, apart from the work cited below. The translations are my own.


Demarcq, Marie Pierre. Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) : Les vues des ports de France. Paris: Musée national de la Marine, 2003.

Awakening to the Sublime: Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) – Part 1


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Claude Lorrain: Port Scene with the Embarkation of St Ursula, 1641, Oil on canvas, 113 x 49 cm, National Gallery, London

In a previous blog [4 February 2015], I was writing about J.W.M Turner after seeing the movie, Mr. Turner. His connections with Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) in particular have always been interesting to me. If any painter epitomizes the idea of ‘the Beautiful,’ it is certainly Claude Lorrain and his serene sunlit landscapes and seascapes. We are taken nowadays more by the beauty of the landscapes than we are by the narratives that are their pretext. This was a time when pure landscape painting was deemed a lower form of art, hence the obligatory narratives from classic authors and the Bible, to provide that necessary moral content that made pure delight more permissable.

In considering Turner, I can’t help but looking at the work of his predecessor, a French artist, Joseph Vernet (1714-89) also much inspired by his illustrious predecessor Claude Lorrain. Both artists worked in Rome to a greater or lesser extent. Lorrain virtually spent his whole life there, while Vernet made his way to Rome in his teens, and only returned to France when his fame had been firmly established. He came to specialize in seascapes, or marine painting as it is also called, and therefore a comparison to Lorrain’s luminous seascapes done a century earlier is certainly in order. With Lorrain, Vernet and Turner we cover almost three centuries of landscape painting in Europe, although we must also mention the landscape and seascape tradition in the Netherlands in the 17th century, especially when discussing Turner.

Here is a typical work by Vernet, and a great one at that. It is a worthy introduction to this relatively little known artist, at least as far as the general public is concerned. It also provides a good example of the type of work that made Vernet’s work so much in demand.


Joseph Vernet: Shipwreck, 1772, oil on canvas, 113.5 × 162.9 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

From the serenely beautiful landscape by Claude Lorrain, depicting the Embarkation of St. Ursula, (above) to the stormy scene with shipwreck, we are introduced to a different aesthetic, and it is that of the Sublime. Rather than explaining what the Sublime is, I will simply link to an excellent Wikipedia article on the subject. The concept was widely disseminated, especially after Edmund Burke wrote his little essay on the subject, which he entitled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. It first appeared in print in 1757. A single quote will be sufficient to explain what the Sublime was all about, certainly as far as landscape painting is concerned.

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling …. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and [yet] with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience.”

Just looking at that Vernet and the terror of a shipwreck and a storm at sea would be enough to bring about a little frisson in the viewer.

But Vernet wasn’t all about shipwrecks and stormy seas. It seems that a couple of times at least, he painted cycles of seascapes depicting various times of day, accompanied by various appropriate activities ashore carried on by common folk. No need to evoke the Embarkation of St. Ursula, or the Trojan Women Burning their Ships, as Claude Lorrain felt was necessary.

Here is the cycle of four paintings by Vernet depicting those times of day.


Joseph Vernet: The Four Times of Day: Morning, 1757, oil on silvered copper, 29.5 x x 43.5 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Here, fishermen are seen on their boat in the early morning with their catch.


Joseph Vernet: The Four Times of Day, Midday, 1757, oil on silvered copper, 29.5 x x 43.5 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

An unexpected storm surprises people ashore, including fishermen tending a net.


Joseph Vernet: The Four Times of Day, Evening, 1757, oil on silvered copper, 29.5 x x 43.5 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Women are seen bathing and washing clothes  in a river or an inlet, in the evening, as shadows begin to fill the valleys as the sun declines.


Joseph Vernet:  The Four Times of Day, Night, 1757, oil on silvered copper, 29.5 x x 43.5 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Night falls. Some fishermen are drying their nets, as others warm themselves by a fire, while moonlight shines over a calm sea.

A number of things can be mentioned about these works. Their setting is an imaginary one, perhaps inspired by the Italian coast. Their medium and support of ‘oil on silvered copper’ is an interesting departure from the usual oil on wood panel, and there are a number of reasons why artists used this during the 17th and 18th centuries. There was minimum shrinkage of the support due to changing ambient temperatures so the paintings did not crack. Also, the silvered copper support seemed to facilitate a luminous effect, and for a painter like Vernet, this would have been important. The relatively small size of the works makes more sense in terms of the use of a silvered copper plate as a support. Vernet’s work is most often encountered in larger dimensions, and there, a stretched canvas provides a better support… although somewhat more subject to cracking and crazing.

The depiction of various times of day indicates that artists were making studies in nature, and their observations informed their work.  Even Claude Lorrain and his colleague Nicolas Poussin often made studies in the Roman countryside. They were sensitive to the different characteristics of light during different hours of the day.

The stormy seas and dramatic skies were certainly one of Vernet’s specialties. Not unusually, much of the painting is devoted to the painting of the sky, and this certainly appealed to the emotions as well as to the contemporary interest in science and its observation of natural phenomena. Vernet painted during a period known as the Enlightenment, where new attention was paid to scientific study and empirical data. During Vernet’s lifetime, the first Encyclopédie (1751) was published in France, and writers and philosophers such as Diderot, d’Alembert, Voltaire and others, were expressing their doubts about all aspects of knowledge as transmitted through the study of ancient texts. It was the beginning of a new era. In one sense, the storms of Vernet express that the ideal of serene beauty was being successfully challenged.

vernet- a stormy sea 1748

Joseph Vernet: A Stormy Sea, 1748, Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 60.5 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Vernet’s life spans the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the former coinciding with the period known as the Roocco, the latter witnessing the rise of Neoclassicism. But during the last half of the 18th century, Romanticism was coming to the fore, first in a German movement known as Sturm und Drang, and then in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. One of Vernet’s last works, now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg is entitled the Death of Virginie, and was inspired from a reading of one of Romanticsm’s earliest novels, Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de St. Pierre, first published in 1788, the year before Vernet’s death. 


Joseph Vernet: La Mort de Virginie, 1789, oil on canvas, 87 x 130 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

I suspect the painting could use a good cleaning or a better reproduction. Nevertheless, here is nature dominating the affairs of humanity through its unimaginable power. The idea of the course of life as a succession of calm days and frightening storms, of moments of discovery, and moments of doubt, even of despair is no doubt what Vernet’s patrons were responding to, and in many ways, it is how we respond to these works today, if we look at these works in the context in which they were created.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015

Book of Hours–March and April


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Tempus fugit! Time flies by and I see I am a bit behind in sharing the wonderful late medieval illuminations from The Très Riches Heures and the Belles Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry. I’ll follow the format of my previous post of Wednesday, 11 February and present the illustrations for both months – March and April – from these marvellous manuscripts, executed for the most part, by the Limbourg Brothers.


©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

This is the representation of the month of March from the Très Riches Heures. It is a time for tilling the soil, pruning the vineyard and the general preparation of the fields as warmth slowly returns to the earth. Serfs and peasants work on the vast estates of the Duke, and the castle featured here is that of Lusignan.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

The picture is topped by the depiction of the Sun’s Chariot as it courses through the heavens, moving from the constellation of Pisces into that of Aries.

The other manuscript, that of the Belles Heures, provides a different approach, identifying some of the more important commemorations of the month. (The feast day of the Annunciation occurs on March 25, for instance. See below).

tres belles heures - march

The top quatrefoil contains a charming scene where one man hoes the soil, while another tips a basket of manure onto the still dormant plant.

tres belles heures - march - detail

The Zodiac sign for Aries appears in the bottom quatrefoil as a white long-tailed ram.

tres belles heures - march - detail2


The month has long been associated with spring flowers. April is the first full bloom of spring, and the page from the Très Riches Heures alludes to this.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

The scene is now in the vicinity of the castle of Dourdan not too distant from Paris. Finely dressed ladies gather flowers, while a couple exchanges rings. The happy couple here is apparently Charles d’Orléans and Jean de Berry’s grand-daughter, Bonne d’Armagnac. It is the age of high chivalry. An enclosed garden to the right shows some trees in blossom.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

And the sun now travels from Aries into Taurus.

The Belles Heures, meanwhile, provides additional information.

tres belles heures - april

Beyond the various festivals celebrating the saints, Easter and Holy Week, occurring sometime in late March or April, depending on the moon, so do not appear on the fixed calendar.

tres belles heures -april - detail 1

The upper quatrefoil shows a well-dressed gentleman carrying a green branch while he smells a blossom from the fruit trees to the right.

tres belles heures -april - detail 2

The lower quatrefoil shows Taurus, the bull, as the month’s zodiac sign.

There is also a wonderful illumination showing the Annunciation, and I can’t resist showing it here, if only to demonstrate how splendid these illuminated paintings can be. This is the art of Paul de Limbourg, ca. 1409-14. It is from the Belles Heures manuscript in the collection of the Cloisters Museum in New York.


In 1974, the Metropolitan Museum of Art published a magnificent reproduction of this book through George Braziller of New York. I am so glad I purchased this years ago on a whim, and it is a real joy to rediscover it. Thames and Hudson reprinted it in 1975 and it is still available on

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015

Haydn’s Creation


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I recently attended a performance of Haydn’s Creation in Penticton by the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The performance, conducted by Rosemary Thomson was quite wonderful, and reminded me that I may not live in one of the great metropolitan centres of Canada, but good live music performance can occur even in my cherished region of orchards and vineyards. Founded as an amateur orchestra in 1959, progressing ever since to semi-professional status, the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra regularly performs in Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton.

OT-001-creation of light

The performance of Haydn’s Creation (Die Schöpfung) was sung in German and surtitles allowed the audience to follow the text, drawn from Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. While the oratorio was originally published with both an English and a German text, English speaking audiences have had lots of criticism of the English text, apparently crudely translated back from the German. The composition dates from the 1796-98.

Before attending the performance on Friday, 10 April, I decided to give the oratorio a listen, as I had not played it in several years.  I found I had no less than three performances of it. One is sung in English, with Christopher Hogwood conducting The Academy of Ancient Music orchestra and chorus, and the recording on L’Oiseau-Lyre dates from 1990. (This performance is available on YouTube) and on a DVD. It has also been re-issued on a Decca CD.


The other performances I have are both sung in German: a live performance by La Petite Bande and the Collegium Vocale conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken (Accent label- 1982) and one by The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (on DDG-Archiv, 1996). The latter, in my opinion, is the very best.

I had completely forgotten how accessible this music is! Really Haydn at his best in so many ways! The musical evocations, or sound pictures, supporting the words are wonderful, sometimes even humourous.  Best to follow the text and its translation to get the most out of this extraordinary music. There are parts for soloists, and there are some wonderful choruses too, but it is worth paying special attention to Haydn’s orchestration, especially when performed on instruments authentic to the period.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015.

The Last Supper


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The solemn festivities of Holy Week are the source of a long iconographical tradition. Some of the best known images inspired by the events of that week are universally known, and repeated to the point of cliché, which is regrettable  because it somehow diminishes the power of the original works.

There are two main events that occur on Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the Last Supper, and the Mount of Olives vigil. Both have had their share of visual representations, but the Last Supper is no doubt the most widely represented.

Of course, the best known representation of the Last Supper is that of Leonardo da Vinci. I have never seen the original as the monastery in Milan that houses it was closed when I visited the city in the spring of 1971. Perhaps it is just as well, as it was in a lamentable state at the time, and has fairly recently been carefully restored as best as can be without compromising the integrity of Leonardo’s original, or what’s left of it.  Here is (I think) a fairly recent picture of the masterpiece. which is to be found in the refectory (dining hall) of the Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.


The work was painted between 1494 and 1498 and measures 460 x  880 cm or about 15 feet high by almost 29 feet, and is situated on a high wall above a doorway.

To my mind, the most striking of all Last Suppers, was that of Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) in the Venetian church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Here it is:

tintoretto last supper 1592-94

If ever there was a picture that illustrated the dynamism and drama of the Baroque period, this is it.  I often used it in my lectures to show the difference between the Renaissance (da Vinci) and the Baroque aesthetic. The Tintoretto is probably my favourite depiction of the Last Supper.  It is an oil on canvas and measures 365 x 568 cm (about 12 by 18 feet) and dates from about 1592-94. I can imagine the impact this depiction of the Last Supper would have had on people still accustomed to Late Medieval and Renaissance traditions!

There is also a wonderful depiction of the Last Supper by Domenico Guirlandaio (1449-1494) dated 1480, so it predates Leonardo’s by a decade or so. It is a fresco in the Cenacolo di Ognisanti In Florence. It measures 400 cm × 810 cm (160 in × 320 in).

guirlandaio - last supper -1485

Artists have generally focused on one particular moment during the Last Supper. Leonardo focused on the moment when Christ says that one of the disciples will betray him. Others have focused on the breaking of the bread and the communion-related aspects of the event, the new covenant, etc. Still others have taken a less specific moment.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) for instance emphasized the Eucharistic moment in his 1523 woodcut, shown here.

durer - last supper 1525

His woodcut for the so-called “Large Passion” of 1496 had used very similar iconography, but one more filled with incident. Here is that version:

durer - last supper 1496

We have some leftover Passover lamb on a platter, with bread on the table and wine being poured. In both instances, as in the Guirlandaio depiction above, St. John is in Christ’s arms, or resting on his breast, as stated in John’s Gospel: (John 13:23) “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.” (King James version). John was the youngest of Christ’s disciples, and was an early recruit, along with his elder brother James, sons of Zebedee, fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.

When I first visited Italy in 1971, I spent most of my time in churches and museums, looking at art first hand. As I had a good knowledge of scripture back then, and Christian iconography in general terms, depictions of the scenes inspired by the Gospels were familiar to me. What was less familiar was some of the earlier iconography, some of it quite literal, which makes for rather awkward pictorial situations. How are we to understand these depictions of St. John “leaning on Jesus’ bosom?” There is greater clarity in the depictions of Judas, of course, who sometimes sits alone opposite Christ across the table.

One extraordinary depiction of the Last Supper, by one Heinrich Lutzelmann (ca. 1450- ca. 1506) was done in 1485 on a panel and is situated in the Church of St. Pierre-le-Vieux in Strasbourg (Alsace). It is about 203 cm high. Once again St. John is seen in Christ’s arms, asleep or just 1485 - last supper

Traditionally, the Apostles were represented with haloes, and this sometimes posed a bit of a problem. Giotto (ca. 1265–1337) in his 1305 depiction demonstrates how awkward this can be when the figures seen from the back or the side appear to have their heads on some kind of platter that has discoloured over time.

giotto- last supper 1305

Then there is the wonderful depiction of the Last Supper by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1235-1319) dated 1308-1312. Duccio avoids the problem of the haloes by only placing them behind frontal figures.

duccio-last supper-1308-1312

There is lots of discussion and scholarly debate over whether or not the Last Supper was a Seder (the traditional Passover meal) or not… the question being exactly on what day of the week did the Last Supper occur? There seems to be some consensus that it was not a Seder, since the meal occurred at least one day before the Crucifixion which was on a Friday (before Sabbath). So the menu served up at the Last Supper is an open question. What was certainly served was bread and wine, and the occasion was a gathering of friends. The farewell sermon of Christ to his disciples on this occasion still makes for  extraordinary reading today, regardless of one’s personal beliefs. The Gospel of St. John, originally written in Greek, is the most poetic of them all, as is his book of Revelations.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015

Scriptural Citations for the Last Supper:

Matthew 26: 24-25; Mark 14: 18-21; Luke 22: 21-23 and John 13:21-30

All images readily available online.



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doré-jeremiah1 One of my childhood memories towards the end of Lent (which seemed to last forever) was of the services on the  holy days before Easter. The ceremonies called Tenebrae (darkness) featured the extraordinary poetry of the Prophet Jeremiah in the form of his Lamentations. These would be performed on those days by a fairly well-rehearsed choir singing the Gregorian chants. I can’t claim to have been aware of the beauty of the texts back then. Eight years of study of Latin still lay before me. doré-jeremiah2 The Lamentations are one of the most poetic books of the Old Testament, apart from the Song of Songs, the Psalms and Ecclesiastes. Essentially, the prophet Jeremiah sees the destruction and desolation of Jerusalem (before it happens) and laments the inevitable catastrophe. Naturally, this great elegiac poetry was used by the Catholic Church in its Holy Week liturgy, not only because of the sorrow expressed therein but as an allegory. The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem is seen as the death of Christ, but is also a call to the faithful to repent. The verse “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertare ad Dominum Deum tuum.” (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God,” is often used as a refrain of sorts. I have provided here three related engravings from the Gustave Doré Bible. The original paintings or drawings were by Doré, but the fine engravings were done by various journeymen engravers, as was the practice of the day.doré-jeremiah3 It was natural that great musicians, especially Catholic ones, would set these texts to the music of their time, and today, irrespective of our beliefs, the music continues to inspire us, especially as Easter and spring are upon us. It is the (necessary) darkness before dawn. If you Google “Lamentations,” or search for Lamentations or Tenebrae on YouTube and you will be able to access some of the extraordinary results. Below, is a partial list of the various settings to the Lamentations that I have collected, most of them from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Many of these recordings are still available. For a good discography summary, click here (texts in French).

I will single out some of the better known settings. There are a number of recordings of the settings by Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) and the settings are brief enough to provide a good introduction to the genre. There are two sets, and both are presented here.  There are also a couple of very beautiful settings by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) and another by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). French Renaissance and Baroque composers seem to have had a particular predilection for the Lamentations texts, and several of them set the words to music. The instrumentation is usually sparse, as befits the Lenten period.

There is one double CD set of Michel Lambert (1610-1696) on Virgin Classics featuring the three days (Wednesday-Thursday-Friday) and their Leçons de ténèbres, for soprano, alto, countertenor and tenor, accompanied by a viola da gamba, a theorbo, and keyboards instruments (harpsichord and positive organ). Well over two hours of sublime music, which you should spread over three days, preferably on quiet reflective evenings, if you still set aside the time to enjoy those. Other settings in that time period are also hauntingly beautiful in their own way. The beauty of the vocal writing, however, overrides the expression of any strong emotion. This was the Age of Reason, after all. And one contemporary cleric bemoaned the fact that the liturgical texts were now being offered as mundane and frivolous entertainment.

There are curiously no Romantic settings of the Lamentations. I am not sure why.  In the 20th century, there were three notable composers inspired by the texts. Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) composed his Lamentations in 1941. I have only heard parts of it. It is a difficult piece, eerily beautiful, returning to the Gregorian now and then but superimposing twelve-tone writing. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) subtitled his First Symphony “Jeremiah” (1939-42). Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) contributed his Threni (1958) — another bit of difficult twelve-tone writing. Last, but certainly not least is the Canadian composer Peter Anthony Togni’s composition Lamentations (2007). It is essentially a lengthy concerto for Bass Clarinet and Chorus. The bits of it that I have heard are remarkable and the composition has received excellent reviews. There is a recording of it, and this will certainly be my next acquisition, and a wonderful addition to my growing collection of Lamentations.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015

Some of the composers and their settings of the Lamentations:

  • Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) Lamentations of Jeremiah, First Set; Lamentations of Jeremiah (second set) probably late works)
  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594): Lamentations, Book Four  (ca. 1588 or earlier).
  • Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) Lamentations.
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria (ca.1548-1611)  Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (1685)
  • Michel Lambert (1610-1696) Leçons des Ténèbres (1689)
  • Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1645-1704) Leçons de Ténèbres du Mercredi Saint (date?) (one version  for Good Friday also exists)
  • Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726)  (first set 1663; second set 1689)
  • François Couperin (1668-1733)  Leçons de Ténèbres pour le Mercredi Saint (1714).
  • Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)  Lamentations (for all three days) (1722).

Hunting for the Best Chicken Cacciatore


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Over the many years I have been shuffling around in a kitchen, I have taken considerable delight in perfecting recipes. Many recipes, do not require this treatment, but in my experience in preparing one recipe following different instructions, I inevitably spend an afternoon doing a bit of research, and compiling my own recipe from several sources. It must be the academic in me. I am not good at improvising a recipe… nor am I good at memorizing one either. So it will come as no surprise that I collect recipes on my computer, from my cookbook library and from online sources. I admit that even today when just about everything is available on line, I still like to buy cookbooks.

Take Chicken Cacciatore for instance (or its French derivative Poulet Chasseur). I doubt that hunters in Italy or anywhere else for that matter make sport of shooting chickens in the barnyard, so the Cacciatore recipes were probably intended for rabbit or hare. No doubt the intrepid hunter (think Elmer Fudd) would often come back empty-handed, so a chicken had to do in a pinch.

elmer and bugs

Of course, you can shoot birds too, and I did find a Renaissance recipe for pigeons. It is in Lorenza de’Medici’s Florentines, a lovely little book I previously mentioned (see Food, Music and Silence – 18 January 2015). Given the recipe, I am inclined to see it as a precursor to Chicken Cacciatore. Read on, and you will see why.

Palombe alla Ghiotta (Wild Pigeons Stewed in Red Wine)

3 wild pigeons or squab
1 litre (1 quart) red wine
3½ fl. oz vinegar
4 garlic cloves
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 small bunch of fresh sage, tied together
1 small onion, quartered
100 gr prosciutto
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 anchovy fillets in oil
1 tbsp capers in vinegar, rinsed
1 lemon wedge
1 thin slice of bread
salt and pepper

Clean the pigeons, leaving heads and feet on, if still attached.  Place in a flameproof casserole with all the other ingredients and cook over low heat for about 1½ hours.  Take the pigeons from the casserole and discards heads and feet, if necessary. Halve the pigeons lengthwise and reserve. Continue to heat the sauce for about another hour until it thickens. Remove the rosemary and sage and purée the sauce in a food mill or food processor. Return the pigeon halves to the casserole with the sauce, reheat for 10 minutes and serve.

pigeonI assume this would serve 2 or 3 people partial to pigeon. I also assume Signora de’Medici can get pigeons at the market where she lives. Unfortunately, I have never seen a pigeon at the local supermarket, let alone one with its head and feet still attached. Squab (which she suggests as a substitute) is just as difficult to find. In Canada, I suspect grouse could be used. You would have to know how to cook wild meat (it usually has to cook much longer than domestic meat!) as it is  very lean, and might be inclined to be a bit tough if the bird is an older one. The recipe she proposes cooks them for 1½ hours, so that should do for any old bird. Apparently the meat should be falling off the bone.

bewick-cockBack to Chicken Cacciatore. Everyone assumes tomatoes are an essential part of the dish, but since tomatoes (from the Americas) were not commonly used in Italian cooking until the late 18th century, any old and authentic recipe for the dish would not use tomatoes. Knowing this, most sources seem to suggest that the dish is really a hunter’s stew, probably made with hare or rabbit, or some kind of feathered game, using wine or vinegar for a sauce, and herbs one can find in the Italian countryside, such as rosemary, sage and thyme.

In my cookbook collection, there are two notable recipes for Chicken Cacciatore which (almost) eschew tomatoes. The first one, closest in intent is the one provided by Giuliano Bugialli. We have made this one often, and I can vouch that it is delicious. Here it is.

Pollo alla Cacciatore (Tuscan)

1 chicken (3 lbs)
1 Tbs fresh rosemary leaves
10 leaves sage, fresh
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled
½ cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
pinch hot pepper flakes
½ cup dry red wine
1 bay leaf
2 Tbs tomato paste (doppo concentrato)
1 ½ cups hot water

1. Cut the chicken into 16 pieces (spezzatini); coarsely chop rosemary, sage and garlic.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole, preferably terra-cotta, and when it is hot, add the chopped ingredients and sauté gently until lightly golden (10 to 12 minutes). Add the chicken pieces and sauté them over moderately high heat until golden all over (about 15 minutes) then add salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes.

3. Lower the heat and pour in the wine. Let it evaporate very slowly (about 10 minutes), then add the bay leaf, tomato paste, and ½ cup of hot water. Cover and let simmer very slowly for 20 minutes, adding more hot water if needed.

4. At this point, the chicken should be cooked, and there should be a small quantity of thick sauce. Remove the bay leaf and  transfer the chicken pieces and sauce to a serving dish. Serve hot. Serves 4.

(It tastes even better reheated!)

Servings: 4

Nutrition Facts
Nutrition (per serving): 2322 calories, 1718 calories from fat, 193.7g total fat, 679.5mg cholesterol, 6063.4mg sodium, 137.8mg potassium, 16.9g carbohydrates, <1g fiber, <1g sugar, 130.5g protein.

Source: Buggiali, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking


chicken1The second recipe is from the venerable Time-Life Foods of the World series, The Cooking of Italy. This particular book was authored by Waverley Root (1903-1982). In it, his recipe for Polla alla Cacciatore is from the south of Italy, and surprisingly still has no tomatoes in it.  I have been making this at least once of month for decades now, and it is still very satisfying.

Pollo alla Cacciatore

2½ lbs. chicken, cut up
Freshly ground pepper
2 Tbs olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped onions
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbs wine vinegar, preferably white
1/2 cup chicken stock, fresh or canned
1/2 tsp dried oregano, crumbled
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs slivered black olives, preferably Mediterranean style
3 flat anchovy fillets, rinsed in cold water, dried and chopped

1. Wash the chicken quickly under cold running water and pat the pieces dry with paper towels. Season the pieces with salt and a few grindings of pepper.

2. In a heavy 10 – 12 inch skillet, heat the olive oil until a haze forms over it.  Brown the chicken a few pieces at a time, starting them skin side down and turning them with tongs. Transfer the browned pieces to a plate.

3. Pour off almost all of the fat from the skillet, leaving just a thin film on the bottom. Add the onions and garlic and cook them over moderate heat, stirring constantly, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are lightly coloured.

4. Add the wine and vinegar and boil briskly until the liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup. Pour in the chicken stock and boil for 1 or 2 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping in any browned bits that cling to the pan. Return the browned chicken to the skillet, add the oregano and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat and simmer, basting occasionally. In about 30 minutes, the chicken should be done; its juice will run clear when a thigh is pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.

5. To serve, arrange the pieces of chicken on a heated platter. Discard the bay leaf and boil the stock left in the skillet until it thickens slightly and has the intensity of flavour desired. Stir in the black olives and anchovies and cook the sauce for a minute or so longer. Pour the sauce over the chicken.

Servings: 4

Nutrition Facts
Nutrition (per serving): 147 calories, 78 calories from fat, 8.8g total fat, <1mg cholesterol, 912.7mg sodium, 323.8mg potassium, 4.7g carbohydrates, <1g fibre, 2g sugar, 6.7g protein.

2014-09-13 getting romas in KeremeosThe fact that it uses white wine suggests a northern origin, but then I will not question Mr. Root’s knowledge or authority here. Anchovies and black olives do suggest southern Italian cooking.

I can imagine that even before tomatoes were finally part of everyday cooking in Italy, someone thought of adding that to a Cacciatore dish as well, especially the chicken one. I have tried many, many variations and one day, I just took about half a dozen of the recipes I had tried and concocted a synthesis of them all. It is terrific! Just make sure you have all the ingredients indicated and make no substitutions. Certainly best done in late summer when fresh tomatoes are plentiful, such as Romas or San Marzano.


Pollo alla Cacciatore

1 3 lb chicken, cut up, or chicken pieces
salt and pepper
1/4 cup butter
2 Tbs olive oil
2 slices pancetta (or bacon), cut in squares
2 medium onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tsp flour
4 to 5 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 Tbs tomato purée (doppo concentrato)
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbs brandy
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 lb mushrooms, whole if small
2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbs chopped fresh basil

1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Melt the butter and olive oil in a casserole, and brown the chicken over medium heat. Removed when browned on all sides.

2. Add the bacon to the casserole and cook for a minute or two, then add the onions and garlic, and sauté them for 5 minutes. Scrape the bottom for any browned bits. Add the flour and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree, wine and brandy, chicken stock, bringing to a boil. Simmer covered for 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and sugar.  Return the chicken to the casserole, and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes or so, add the mushrooms.

3. Remove the chicken to a heated platter, check the sauce for seasoning, bring to a vigorous boil and reduce it to a thick consistency.

4. Off the heat, mix half the parsley and basil into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle the remaining parsley and basil over that.

Servings: 4

Nutrition Facts
Nutrition (per serving): 424 calories, 253 calories from fat, 28.6g total fat, 43.4mg cholesterol, 1247mg sodium, 1397.5mg potassium, 30.5g carbohydrates, 7.2g fibre, 16.1g sugar, 11.9g protein.

roosterSome folks who prefer a more authentic chicken cacciatore suggest that the resulting dish (with tomatoes) is best suited as a pasta sauce.  The dish is certainly delicious with pasta, especially large noodles like fettuccine or tagliatelle. A green vegetable, like steamed green beans, add even more colour to the dish.

I am sure I will always read new variations for Chicken Cacciatore with great interest, and they will surely keep coming, many arguing it is the authentic one, but what IS authentic with a dish like this? In the end, it is about flavour, and probably, just as important, good friends to share the meal.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015

Pea Soup Deconstructed


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I remember not liking pea soup very much as a child. Maybe it was a texture thing. Maybe it was because we often had it during Lent. I guess for every French Canadian kid growing up in Manitoba, pea soup was almost a weekly thing, so it was very ordinary. But I know my mother made good pea soup because I tried it later in life and it was delicious. She had not changed the way she prepared it. And this was her recipe:

Mom’s Yellow Pea Soup

1 ham bone with a little meat left on it
2 cups yellow whole (or split) peas
3 bay leaves
2 carrots, shredded
salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves if possible, chopped
1 cup pearl barley

1. Place the hambone in a pot, fill pot about 3/4 full with water. Add peas and onion and barley. Bring to a boil and add bay leaves. Add carrot and celery and simmer until peas and barley are well cooked, about 2 hours.

I must admit I don’t quite get the addition of 1 cup pot barley. It does not add to the flavour, nor is it necessary as a thickening agent. Maybe she preferred the resulting texture. I would be inclined to omit it as I have never seen a recipe for pea soup with barley in it. But I suspect every French Canadian mother had her own way. Some even add a cup of diced potatoes to the recipe.

Madame Jéhane Benoît (1904-1987) is one good authority to consult in matters of French Canadian cuisine. Her La nouvelle encyclopédie de la cuisine contains traditional dishes as well as dishes from elsewhere. One of the recipes in her book is called Soupe aux pois classique, and here is her recipe.

Soupe aux pois classique

1 lb. dried yellow peas
½ lb. salt pork
2 ¾ quarts water
3 medium onions, chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 or 3 bay leaves
a handful  of celery leaves
a few sprigs of parsley, chopped
1 tsp savory

1. Wash and drain the peas. Put them in a large casserole with all the ingredients. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it rest for 1 hour.

2. Return the casserole to heat and return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for one hour or until the peas are cooked. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Serve as is, or purée in a blender before serving.

She then goes on to provide some variations, such as making a meatless soup for fasting days. Another variation has the addition of sliced sausages and cooked corn. Yet another adds cheese and crisp bacon. She also suggests that a tbsp of sour cream can be added to each bowl when serving. Finally, she writes that the American version of the classic pea soup uses a ham bone instead of the salt pork.

Mom always used a ham bone for her soup, and I have always done the same. I slowly simmer the ham bone and any meat on it for at least an hour, then refrigerate it until I need it. It will keep like this for abouham bonet a week or so. Another option is to simmer a smoked pork hock in several cups of water. The intensity of the stock increases as it simmers down. The idea of adding a handful of celery leaves is one I heartily subscribe to. Bay leaves are good. Savory is optional. Simmering a ham bone also flavours the stock with whatever spices were used to cook the ham.

Apparently the Pea Soup served on Canadian Pacific Railway passenger trains was really good. I have that recipe too. It is very similar to Madame Benoit’s, with the little flourish of crisping up some of the salt pork (leaner bits) and adding them at the very end. Here is that recipe.

Yellow Pea Soup  (Canadian Pacific)

½ lb whole yellow peas
¼ lb salt pork, thickly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 quarts hot water

1. Wash peas well in cold water. In a pot over medium heat, render some fat from the salt pork and sauté the carrot, onion, and celery until tender. Add hot water, slowly at first, the peas, bring all to a boil, and boil for 1 hour.

2. Remove pork and vegetables and continue boiling until peas are thoroughly cooked, adding water, if necessary, to bring to required consistency.

3. Wash salt pork, allow to cool, then dice small. In a small skillet over medium heat, slowly fry until crisp, drain all fat off, and serve in soup like croutons.

This is a very good recipe, actually. I highly recommend it.

The texture of a good pea soup is a matter of taste. I have never liked it too thick, so don’t always blend them. If it is too thick after cooking, you can add some more stock.  Taste it frequently.  Be sparing with the salt. Pepper is optional too.

When I traveled to Sweden in 1989, I was surprised to learn that Pea Soup is a traditional Thursday night supper in Sweden. Their version certainly reminded me of the French Canadian version, and I can only explain that by the fact that most French Canadians are descended from the Normans, who were Vikings from the Scandinavian countries. Then again, pea soup is such a universal thing, and such an ancient recipe, that the French Canadian version might have come from anywhere.

Pea soup is a very common food in northern countries. German armed forces started eating it during the Franco-Prussian War. It is also a common dish in the Netherlands. It is regular fare for Finnish and Scandinavian armed forces. Naturally, I sought out recipes for the Swedish pea soup and here is one recipe I found at:  (

Dried Pea Soup (Ärtsoppa, in Swedish)

This is an immensely gratifying, warming soup traditionally made from dried yellow peas and served on Thursdays in Sweden, followed by crêpe-like pancakes with whipped cream and preserves (Pannkakkor) for dessert. Try swirling a teaspoon of grainy brown mustard on top of each serving to enhance both the presentation and the rich combination of flavors.

1 lb dried yellow or green peas (whole if you can get them, but split ones work just as well)
8 cups water
2 finely chopped onions (2 cups)
1 peeled whole onion studded with 2 cloves
1 large chopped carrot (1/2 cup)
1 meaty ham bone -or- 2 to 3 ham hocks
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1 tsp grainy brown mustard

1. Rinse and pick through 1 lb. dried yellow or green peas. If using whole peas, soak the peas overnight in their soup water (this isn’t necessary if using split peas so long as you can let the soup simmer for 2 to 3 hours).

2. Fill a large pot with 8 cups of water (or 6 if you like a thicker soup. You can always thin it with water as you go along if it looks too dense). Add the peas, 2 finely chopped onions, 1 peeled whole onion studded with two whole cloves, 1 large chopped carrot, and a meaty ham bone (-or- 2 to 3 ham hocks). Bring to a boil, then cover pot and reduce to a simmer over low heat for 90 minutes.

3. If using whole peas, skim off any pea skins that have risen to the surface. Remove 2 to 3 cups of the soup, puree in a blender or food processor, and return puree to the pot (this helps to thicken the soup). Continue to simmer for at least 30 more minutes; another hour or more won’t hurt it.

4. Minutes before serving, remove the studded onion and the meat. Chop the meat (it should amount to about 1 cup) and return to pot. Season the soup with 1 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. ground ginger, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. pepper. Simmer 15 more minutes.  Serve, passing around grainy brown mustard to stir into soup to taste.

Servings: 4

Cooking Times:
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 17 minutes

Nutrition Facts
Nutrition (per serving): 34 calories, 1 calories from fat, <1g total fat, 0mg cholesterol, 612.3mg sodium, 164.6mg potassium, 8g carbohydrates, 1.8g fiber, 3.6g sugar, <1g protein.

Pea_soup_tube_070508Many variations can be found for that recipe too. Sometimes the pork (or sausage) is served on the side with mustard, and a hearty rye bread. Herbs may vary too. In my cookbook library I have a number of Scandinavian cookbooks, and each one offers a variation. Apparently, in Sweden and Denmark, you can buy pea soup in a tube. I cannot vouch for its flavour.

Curiously, in France, you are more likely to be served Potage Saint-Germain, which is made with fresh green peas. It is quite different, but delicious. I make this one at the time of the year when we can get fresh peas at market. In Italy, they have a Minestra di Piselli. These are very fine soups, and in a very different league than the split-pea soup variations discussed here.

This is a very brief essay on my experience with pea soup. There are thousands of variations, but one thing is for sure, this is comfort food of the highest order, tempered perhaps by memories of boarding school and other cafeteria-like offerings which pale in comparison to the real thing.

© Roger H. Boulet, 2015