A Shipwreck

Tuesday, April 23rd 2024

by Claude Joseph Vernet

Claude Joseph Vernet (Français, 1714-1789)

Shipwreck victims on a rocky shore, 1780

Oil on copper.
Signed and dated on the bottom left corner 'J. Vernet f. 1780'.

H. 39.4 W. 55.3 cm.
In a Louis XVI carved and gilded oakwood frame, nr. 482.

- bought by Duke of Liancourt on December 30, 1780 for 1,200 pounds;
- the collections of Prof. Émile Aron (1907-2011), Tours.

A painting by Vernet belonging to the Duke of Liancourt - by Cabinet Turquin

Starting in the 1750s, Joseph Vernet made shipwreck scenes, with bodies washed ashore, a fashionable subject - one that he would continue to paint all along his career. Following in his footsteps, landscape painters of the second half of the 18th century started depicting natural disasters such as storms, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and describing man's powerlessness in the face of Nature's might, thus foreshadowing the Romantic Movement that would liken harsh weather to man's inner torments.

In his 1763 Salon reviews, Diderot praised Vernet: "If he stirs up a storm, you hear the winds whistle and the waves roar; you see them climb up the rocks". English philosopher Edmund Burke, in his 1757 essay entitled Philosophical Investigation of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, wrote: "Everything that is terrible... is a source of the Sublime". The feeling of fear, of solitude in the face of infinity, gives rise to an aesthetic emotion. Such anecdotes were developed in the literature of the time, for example in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul & Virginie novel. Even today, delight for such tragic subjects is dramatized in movies (cf. Titanic).

With this painting, the viewer's eye is at water level: the horizon line, placed one-third of the way up the picture, is broken by rippling waves. Our composition is structured around strong geometrical axes, most notably in an X-shape. From the bottom left-hand corner, the upward movement starts from the waves and rises up the cliff. The second diagonal line goes down from the clouds to the floating piece on the bottom right corner. The two figures are stranded on a rock in the center of this X. A half-naked couple, they are holding hands, associating love in death, Eros and Thanatos, in a scene that is not devoid of eroticism.

Even on such a small painting, Vernet manages to keep the very realistic aspect of stormy skies and seas that made his large canvases so successful. Atmospheric variations are rendered through a chromatic harmony of grays and blues enhanced by skillfully placed red touches and the white color of foamy waves. The luminosity and transparency of the copper support underline the great pictorial qualities of the whole painting. Here, Vernet transcends his role models, Salvator Rosa, Jacob van Ruisdael, Ludolf Bakhuizen and Adrien Manglard. Legend has it that the artist asked to be tied to a mast in the middle of a storm in order to personally experience the unleashing of elements so as to be able to depict his feelings as faithfully as possible on his paintings.

The 19th century marked the apex of depictions of stormy seas and tempests, with Gudin and Isabey in France, Victor Hugo's drawings, Courbet, Turner in England... Vernet's direct heirs were none other than Romantic painters Théodore Géricault and his own grandson, Horace Vernet. At the time of the sinking of La Méduse, both painters multiplied this kind of dramatic seascape: L'Épave (“The Shipwreck”) by the former (Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts) and La Vague (“The Wave”) by the latter (ca. 1820-1825, private collection) are echoes of our painting. This thematic filiation has been studied in a tremendous exhibition at the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris ("Tempêtes et naufrages. De Vernet à Courbet" May 19 - September 12, 2021).

36th Garden Party Auction
May 24-27, 2024

at château d'Artigny
92, rue de Monts 37250 Montbazon, France.
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