Claude-Joseph Vernet was born in Avignon in 1714, the son of Antoine Vernet (1689-1753), an artisan painter of architectural decorations, coach panels, and the like. He moved to the studio of Philippe Sauvan (1697-1792), a leading history painter in Avignon, and then worked with Jacques Viali (active 1681-1745), a decorative, landscape, and marine painter in Aix-en-Provence. Vernet's first recorded paintings were decorative overdoors executed in 1731 in the Aix townhouse of the marquise de Simiane. In 1734, Joseph de Seytres, marquis de Caumont, a leading amateur in Avignon, sponsored Vernet to make a study trip to Italy to complete his artistic education and to draw antiquities for his patron.
As Avignon was a papal territory in Vernet's day, he also had a number of useful introductions among influential churchmen when he arrived in Rome. Vernet was soon at home in the French community there, and he was encouraged by Nicolas Vleughels (1668-1737), director of the Académie de France in Rome, even though the young painter had no official affiliation with the royal institution. He likely entered the studio of the French marine painter Adrien Manglard (1695-1760). By 1740 Vernet was developing an independent reputation as a painter of topographical landscape in and around Rome and Naples, as well as of imaginary Italianate landscapes and marines, demonstrated by the increasing number of entries in his surviving account books from the mid-1730s onward. His first important patron in Rome was the French ambassador Paul Hippolyte de Beauvillier, duc de Saint-Aignan (1684-1776). This relationship set a pattern, and members of the French diplomatic corps and visiting French prelates remained important patrons during Vernet's long Roman sojourn, which lasted almost twenty years (he returned definitively to France in 1753). He also worked for the Roman nobility--for example, painting a series of major marines for Don Giacomo Borghese (Rome, Palazzo Borghese). But it was the British--the wealthiest travelers in Europe--who became Vernet's main patrons during their Grand Tours, purchasing Italianate landscapes and marines as souvenirs of their visits to Italy. The British remained enthusiastic patrons of Vernet, even long after his return to France.
The appeal of Vernet's art was twofold. On the one hand, he drew on the tradition of ideal landscape painting codified by Claude Lorrain (1604/1605-1682), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Gaspard Dughet (1615-1675), and Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) in seventeenth-century Italy. Inspired by the landscape of the Roman Campagna and its surrounding hills, and by the coastline south to Naples, these artists had created appropriate landscape settings for narratives from ancient history or mythology, or in which the classically educated viewer could wander in his imagination. Vernet, on the other hand, brought to the study of nature a more empirical and closely observed approach, consistent with his times, creating what seemed to his contemporaries a more vivid and convincing impression of nature. This effect was enhanced by the fact that he usually conceived his pictures in pairs, or even sets of four, which showed dramatically contrasting aspects of nature. Having established these kinds of paintings as successful formulas by the mid-1740s, Vernet continued to supply a European demand for them for the rest of his career. Vernet first exhibited typical landscapes and marines at the Paris Salon of 1746, the year his membership in the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture was approved. He became a full member in 1753 and exhibited successfully at the Salon for the rest of his life. He had come to the attention of Louis XV's administration in 1746, and in 1753 he was finally called back to France to begin an official commission to paint large topographical views of the principal commercial and military seaports of the realm. This commission took him on an arduous itinerary, from Antibes in the south to Dieppe in the north, from 1753 until 1765, during which time he completed fifteen large paintings. Vernet's "Ports of France" (Paris, Musée du Louvre) are among the greatest French paintings of the mid-eighteenth century, for they are both remarkable social and historical documents of contemporary port life, full of fascinating observation, and at the same time beautifully composed and rendered works of art.
Vernet continued a large production of imaginary landscape and marine paintings until his death on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789. He was one of the most acclaimed and successful artists in France, and he received commissions from every corner of Europe. The public and critics alike admired his art, and the great writer and critic Denis Diderot (1713-1784) eulogized him. Diderot especially admired Vernet's dramatic scenes of shipwrecks, which perfectly illustrate the contemporary concept of the Sublime, expressing with horror the ephemeral quality of human endeavor before the immutable power of nature.
[Philip Conisbee, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 431.]
Lagrange, Léon. Les Vernets. Joseph Vernet et la peinture au xv iiie siècle. 2nd ed. Paris, 1864.
Ingersoll-Smouse, Florence. Joseph Vernet, peintre de marine, 1714–1789. 2 vols. Paris, 1926.