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.