Claude-Joseph Vernet was a French painter and passed down his passion to his son, Horace Vernet, who also became a successful painter. Vernet was very popular during his time, being highly praised for his skill in portraying ocean scenes and marinescapes with a depiction of the sublime through the sea. The philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot wrote passionate passages based on his work, especially on the artworks of the 1767 Salon.
Vernet was born in Avignon in August 1714. When he was only fourteen years old, the young man started to help his father. Antoine Vernet, born in 1689, was a skilled decorative painter and introduced his son to the essentials of his work. Antoine worked on architectural decorations and coach paintings and was responsible for his son's early education.
In Avignon, he studied under the historical painter Philippe Sauvan. Sauvan provided a formal Neo-Classical education for the young man, teaching him Academic methods. The artist then started to work with the Aix en Provence painter, Louis René Vialy.
Similar to Claude-Joseph's father, Vialy's work was based on decorative art, and he also explored marine subjects, complementing his primary education with Sauvan. His first work was a commission to make decorative paintings on doors.
The Marquis de Caumont was an amateur artist who lived in Aix and became Vernet's patron. In 1734, he sponsored a trip to Italy for the young artist to complete his studies. Since Avignon belonged to the Vatican's jurisdiction at this time, the painter had no problem adapting to Rome's artistic and clerical community.
With the encouragement of Nicolas Vleughels, the head of the French Academy, Vernet started to study in the workshop of Adrien Manglard. Manglard was a member of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and was influenced by the Dutch Golden Age painters, famous for their breathtaking landscapes. Renowned for his marines, the master was the last prominent figure in Vernet's views on art and painting.
Slowly Vernet began to draw the attention of the artists in Rome. Using realistic and precise drawing techniques, a convention stemming from his Neo-Classical principles, his productions still had a highly expressive pictorial aspect, close to Claude Lorrain's subtle colorwork and a sense of unity and grandiosity. These aspects of his work evoked the sublime and were taken by Italian art and Rome's classical architecture.
Perhaps no other landscape or seascape painter has ever given the human figure such an important part in the scene and overall composition. "Others may know better," the artist said, "how to paint the sky, the earth, the ocean; no one knows better than I how to paint a picture."
According to the surviving documents from the mid-1730s, Claude-Joseph Vernet received many commissions. Soon the Duke of Saint-Aignan became his patron, his first major client at the Italian capital, and worked as the French Ambassador. Through him, the artist got acquainted with many diplomatic agents that became his patrons as well.
The French diplomats and the Roman nobility also took an interest in his work, attracted to his epic and detailed rendition of nature. Ultimately, British tourists were immensely captivated by his Italian region landscapes, and some of them turned into lifelong patrons. These interactions made the artist commercially successful and with an ever-increasing list of clients, working for influential figures such as Catherine II, the Empress of Russia.
Vernet lived in Rome for 20 years, always close to his established manner and exploring landscape through storms, calms, and moonlights. In 1746, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In the same year, he sent some easels to be exhibited in Paris. He continued to participate in events of the Academy throughout his whole life.
Because the painter participated in the Royal Academy art shows, he attracted Louis XV's eye and was summoned to the city. The monarch's officials then commissioned Vernet to paint large pictures of the main seascapes of the country. The series took him three years to be completed and today remains at the Louvre. Called Ports of France, they are among his best-known works.
Not only was Vernet's work admired by his enriched clients, but art critics also praised him. Denis Diderot, a prominent Enlightenment figure, philosopher, and playwright, was one of the most significant art critics of their time.
Using a narrative approach to his writing, Diderot inaugurated a fresh and intimate way of writing about exhibitions and gave critical insights for a local journal on the Salons from 1765 until 1781. Along with Jean Baptiste Greuze, Vernet was considered by the philosopher as one of the best artists from his time.
When writing about Vernet, Diderot's prose vibrated with awe. The critic greatly admired how the painter worked with light and color, his insistence on placing figures in the composition only when necessary, and his mastery in reproducing nature's power in pictorial language.
In the writer's perception, his skill in observing his subjects made Vernet something beyond a landscape painter. While for Diderot, Lorrain painted landscapes, Vernet is a painter of history, synthesizing the works of nature and humanity.
The way that Diderot analyzed the French painter's oeuvre can be understood through the lens of the sublime. Compared to God, when his artistic feats are described, Vernet excelled at creating a new world and going beyond mere representation to the creation of a particular universe.
Based on the writings of philosopher Edmund Burke and the painter's works in the Salon of 1767, Diderot lifted the idea of the sublime from a general sensitive field to art criticism. In the writer's point of view, Vernet's landscapes are capable of eliciting feelings of self-annihilation and terror, often linked with the state of the sublime.
Claude-Joseph Vernet lived in Paris for the rest of his life. He didn't have any dramatic changes in his output and continued creating diligently. The painter exhibited regularly in the Royal Academy shows until his death.
Vernet passed away in the Louvre on December third, 1789. His legacy continued with his son, Horace Vernet, a Romanticist painter that dealt with national and war themes and had his initial education done by his father.