Two hundred years ago this weekend, the founding father of modern European landscape painting, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, died. In this and a subsequent article, I will try to trace the origins of this new form of landscape art, starting here with a brief look at the work of Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–1789).
Prior to the eighteenth century, French and Italian landscape painting by the likes of Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and their successors, had depicted idealised landscapes. These were composites built from sketches made in water-based media, graphite, and the like. Although there were some early exceptions, including Velázquez’s remarkable oil sketches of the Villa Medici in Rome, plein air painting in oils was unusual.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes not only made a great many landscape oil sketches, but embodied them as good practice in his influential textbooks. His teaching was passed through his pupil Achille Etna Michallon, to Camille Corot, and so into Impressionism. Indeed, several of the Impressionists were still using Valenciennes’ textbooks.
The question remains where did Valenciennes get the idea to sketch outdoors in oils? One most likely answer is from Claude-Joseph Vernet. Several art historians consider that Vernet and Valenciennes met in Paris in 1781-82, and it was then that Vernet introduced Valenciennes to the practice. Direct evidence is sadly lacking: Vernet had a contemporary reputation as a plein air painter, but not one of those oil sketches has survived. Instead, we only have Vernet’s finished works from the studio as evidence that he must, at some stage in his workflow, have painted directly from nature.
Claude-Joseph Vernet was the senior of a whole family of artists, of whom his son Horace Vernet is probably the best-known today. He was born in Avignon in France, and set off for Rome to study painting in 1734. There he quickly learned to paint maritime subjects to a high standard, establishing himself a reputation which extended back to Paris. In 1753, he was given the royal command to paint a series of works showing the seaports of France, which he continued well into the 1760s. I will show an example later.
The first paintings of his that I show here form a series showing The Four Times of Day which he completed in 1757. William Hogarth had made a similar series of four paintings in 1736, but I don’t know whether Vernet even knew of those. Thankfully, Vernet’s series hasn’t been dispersed, and is now in Australia.
Morning shows three people busy fishing at the edge of a substantial river, as the sun rises behind a watermill and trees on the left. Making its way slowly towards the viewer is a barge, its sail lofted out by the gentle breeze. Gulls are on the wing, and the day promises to be fine and sunny.
By Midday, the clouds of early morning have built into squally showers. While two people are fishing with nets, a couple with an infant and a dog, in the left foreground, are hurrying for shelter before heavy rain starts. Behind them a shepherd has brought their flock under a grove of trees. The gulls are now wheeling and soaring in the strengthening wind.
The storms past, by Evening the weather is again fine. It is warm enough for a small group of women to bathe in the river, in a pool below a waterfall. This scene is reminiscent of the falls of the Aniene River at Tivoli, not far from the city of Rome, with the ruins of the Temple of Vesta at the top right – a very popular motif for landscape painters.
At Night, Vernet takes us down to the coast, where a group who are apparently living rough on the beach are heating a large pot on an open fire. Behind them is a lighthouse, with a full moon low in the sky, implying that this view is looking to the east (moonrise). A fully-rigged ship is heading into the shore, under full sail to catch what it can of the light breeze.
In 1765, Vernet was painting some of the late works in his series of French seaports, including this finely-detailed view of Dieppe Harbour, complete with its many highly-detailed ships and people. At this time, Dieppe was a very long way from Paris, as there was no railway of course, and there was no scheduled boat service to England either.
Later in that decade, he painted a series of coastal views of the Mediterranean in various weather conditions and at different times of the day, another idea which was to inspire Impressionists a century later.
His dramatic depiction of A Storm on a Mediterranean Coast (1767) captures the scene forcefully. In the distance, to the right of the prominent lighthouse, is a second, set atop a round tower. Sadly, they are both too late for the survivors being dragged out of the sea in the foreground.
Vernet must have painted this after close observation of a real storm on the coast, as he shows the high ‘clapotic’ waves resulting from the combination of incoming and reflected waves, just behind and to the right of the group of survivors on the rocky shore.
Vernet’s later A Calm at a Mediterranean Port (1770) shows a similar stretch of Italianate coastline bathed in the golden light of dusk on a calm evening, a gentle breeze blowing the pendants of the fully-rigged ship.
Vernet painted this nocturne of a Seaport by Moonlight in about 1771, with similar elements to his Night shown above. It was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1773.
Vernet’s work was by no means confined to the coast. In 1775, for instance, he painted this view of A Mountain Landscape with an Approaching Storm, which combines narrative elements from Midday above in a setting reminiscent of Tivoli.
Unlike the earlier idealised landscapes of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, Vernet’s landscapes have a close semblance to real geographical locations, such as Tivoli. They are consistent with the claim that he sketched in oil in front of the motif, and that it was he who advised Valenciennes to adopt the practice. If he did, then he is one of the founders of modern landscape painting.
Claude-Joseph Vernet worked in lodgings in the Louvre, where he died on 3 December 1789, just as Valenciennes’ career was reaching its peak. Tomorrow, I will look at the work of Valenciennes.