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Claude-Joseph Vernet, French Painter of Views

Claude-Joseph Vernet - A Calm at a Mediterranean Port - Google Art Project
A Calm at a Mediterranean Port, 1770

Born on August 14, 1714, Claude-Joseph Vernet was a French Romantic painter from Avignon. Vernet's vedute are strongly influenced by painters such as Giovanni Paolo Panini and Claude Lorrain, whom both worked in Rome. Vernet distinguished himself from his contemporaries by seeking more dramatic light effects, particularly moonlight, and early dawn as well as experimenting with weather itself including fog and rain as subjects to reinforce his Romantic themes, something foreign in most landscape painting at that time. Vernet also worked mainly from imagination, using sketches as reference and incorporating some known landmarks from Rome but combining them into his own capricci but with fishermen and marine subject matter as his main themes.

In A Calm at a Mediterranean Port above, Vernet's use of light and clouds is mesmerizing. Look up close and that beautiful golden yellow glaze on the sky against the blue is superb, which he continues with in the reflections on the water leading the eye toward the pier. The horizon has a tint of red, pink basically, that spreads out toward the sides of the buildings and the mountain. On the ship hanging off to the side is a flag of what appears to be the Netherlands or Luxembourg. What separates Vernet from his contemporaries is his verisimilitude in portraying foreground figures. He captures the daily life of fishermen on the docks with women waiting bored off to the side, keenly aware of body language in every single figure he depicts. Note the large, curved anchor that points amusingly to Vernet's signature in black on the stones of the dock. The scene is tranquil and typical of a Lorrain but Vernet's tiny details tell a story beyond the morning glow. Vernet invites us to breathe the morning air.

Joseph Vernet - Summer Evening, Landscape in Italy - Google Art Project
Summer Evening, Landscape in Italy, 1773

I love the contrast of soft clouds against sharply detailed trees. Here Vernet hides the sun behind the rocks and instead focuses on the pattern of foliage leading the eye toward the distant architecture on the hill. This is pure capriccio and yet we see ourselves standing observing this scene only because of Vernet's keen attention to detail. Many artists suggest leaves but Vernet seems to delineate each one effortlessly, as if the scene would not be complete without the detail. The way he depicts the light falling on the trees, changing color temperature as the trees fall into shadow in the background...Vernet's eye is razor sharp. Note off to the left a man leers behind a tree watching the young ladies frolicking in the water, half naked. Even in such sublime Romanticism Vernet's sense of humour is amusing. Makes you wonder how Vernet would have treated the nude beaches of present day Greece and the gawkers...

Claude-Joseph Vernet - The four times of day- Evening - Google Art Project
The four times of day: Evening, 1757

More like an oil sketch than finished painting, Vernet proves he can paint loosely and painterly with the best of them. Here the trees seem to sway in the breeze of this late afternoon scene that Vernet entitles as evening, and by the color changes he also suggests the anticipation of Fall. I love the interplay of shadows and light here, with the brushwork indicating various textures of rock, foliage and water—there is even a waterfall behind the rocks. But what is the most intriguing about this painting is the gracefulness of the female figures here. Vernet could have easily been comfortable painting mythological scenes with nymphs and satyrs frolicking about, yet he chooses natural looking people in a completely natural setting. Vernet is faithful to representing the detail of nature yet clever enough to idealize it in a way that invites. As trite as it may seem, Vernet's work would enliven any living room or den in any household of the world, yet worthy to be in the finest museum.

Vernet, Claude Joseph - The Shipwreck - 1772
The Shipwreck , 1772

Vernet's inherent ability to depict drama has all the makings of a modern-day Hollywood film, but in his own day he was one of the leading marine and landscape painters of the 18th century. Here is how he distinguishes himself from his contemporaries in that he not only reveres nature, but also portrays its terrifying power and rage despite men being "masters of the seas". The dark palette replaces the sunny blue sky here with a grayish blue, and the lightning strike is a long streak of yellow against a murky sunset—note the yellow ochre tones he paints around the lightning. The rolling waves steal the drama from his usual attention to the rocks, but it is the intense figure arrangement here that proves Vernet would have made a great historical painter with full-length figures. He is clearly telling a story that leads the eye across the composition and makes us wonder how they survived this storm and the ingenuity in the sailors fleeing the ship down a makeshift "zip line" across treacherous waters. By teetering the ship at an incredibly steep angle he indicates the severity of the storm, yet it also leads the eye to the tree with the splayed branch and downward to the crash of waves and figures below. Our modern sensibility lends our eyes to understand a narrative sequentially, since we cannot comprehend a world without cinema or television. In Vernet's era, however, this composition, filled with as much visual information as we can handle, gives us all the narrative that we need in one "frame". This is inspiring narrative painting.

Claude-Joseph Vernet - Landscape with Waterfall and Figures - Walters 372411
Landscape with Waterfall and Figures, 1768

I love the rich vivid colors of this painting. Vernet uses scale to contrast tiny figures and distant ships with large foreground rocks and trees. There is so much going on in Vernet's compositions that one "frame" is all the narrative we really need to feel like a story is taking place before us. His figures are a unique snapshot of 18th century life and society, and in this painting he uses body language to depict three distinct social classes from tourist to plebian to the affluent. Contemporaries from Vernet's era would have picked up on the social cues in this type of composition, especially the role of women as mothers and domestic labor in a pre-industrialized world.

Below is a sample of Vernet's exquisite drawings and his attention to mood and figure arrangement:

Maritime Scene

The French Painter Claude Joseph Vernet (Alexander Roslin) - Nationalmuseum - 18536
Joseph Vernet by Alexander Roslin,1767

Vernet lived in an era of beauty and grace. An era that saw the rise of the art museum as a major attraction of the Grand Tour and his work helped popularize this notion of beauty as the cultivation of the modern mannered gentleman. Vernet also respected and loved nature in a way that is truly timeless and fresh. Roslin's portrait above clearly depicts an energetic and keen individual who loved life, and loved being an artist, in an era that loved artists and art. It is a reminder of our responsibility as artists to leave behind that which we love, for future generations to love as well.


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