A Storm with a Shipwreck by Claude-Joseph Vernet

A Storm with a Shipwreck by Claude-Joseph Vernet (1754)

I spent the last couple of days in London and whilst there visited a couple of art displays.  Unfortunately, with previous commitments tying up my time on one day I had a limited exposure to the beautiful world of art.  I normally would have spent some time at the National Gallery or one of the Tates but because I had only a short period and because I wanted to visit the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition I decided I had to limit myself to one gallery and so I decided to go somewhere new.  It was for these reasons I ended up on the steps of the Wallace Collection and although my time was restricted, I was completely blown-away by the art on display.  This is a beautiful jewel in the art crown of London, just a few minutes’ walk from the great Emporiums of M&S and Selfridges and everybody who visits London should visit this gallery and savour the magnificent art they have on display.

My Daily Art Display today features one of the many works of art I saw at the gallery.  It is entitled A Storm with a Shipwreck and was painted in 1754 by Claude-Joseph Vernet.  The Vernet family tree reads like a “Who’s Who” of distinguished French painters.  The head of the family was Antoine Vernet (1689-1753) was a prosperous artisan painter in Avignon and to whom many decorated coach panels are attributed. He had four sons, all of whom were painters, Claude Joseph,  Jean-Antoine,  Antoine-Francois and Antoine Ignatius.  He was grandfather to the artist Antoine-Charles Joseph, known as Carle Vernet and great grandfather to the painter Horace Vernet.  Of his three sons, Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89) earned a reputation throughout Europe as a great landscape and marine artist, receiving the commission from Louis XV for the series of paintings, Ports of France.   Jean-Antoine Vernet (1716-1755) also painted seascapes, and (Antoine-) Francois Vernet (1730-79) was a decorative painter.  Jean-Antoine Vernet had a son, Louis Francois, who along with Antoine-Francois’s son, Joseph Vernet the Younger, were both active sculptors in Paris.  Today’s featured artist Claude-Joseph Vernet had a son Carle who followed in his father’s footsteps and became known for his pictures of horses and battle scenes, though his achievement was overshadowed not only by his father’s but by that of his son Horace Vernet, a prolific and highly successful painter, especially of battle scenes. The Vernet family was connected by marriage to several other notable French artists, Carle becoming father-in-law of Hippolyte Lecomte and Horace that of Paul Delaroche; Carle’s sister Emilie married the architect Jean-Francois-Thérese Chalgrin.

When I saw today’s painting of a shipwreck at sea I was immediately transported back in time to my days at sea and the many horrendous storms I had to endure.  However this seascape also reminded me of the many times we had to bring our small vessel into the Portuguese port of Oporto.  The flow of water along the river Duoro, which is controlled by dams in the river high up in the Spanish mountains, ends its 727kms journey as it forces its way through the town of Oporto before pouring itself out into the Atlantic Ocean.  For many years the flow had not been strong enough to clear the sandbank and silting at the river mouth and the passage from ocean to river was a hazardous dog-leg, which was made even more difficult with the Atlantic rollers buffeting the stern of vessels as they headed for the narrow channel entrance.  I will always remember the tension on the bridge of the vessel as we tried to steer a course through the narrow entrance along the winding channel, hampered by following seas buffeting the stern of vessel making the ship slew from side to side.  Tension was further heightened as one looked at the sandbank which almost completely straddled the entrance and perched on top of it was a wreck of a ship which had failed to successfully navigate its way through the narrow entrance.  This was almost forty years ago and I am sure things have changed.

Vernet had just returned to France in 1753 after spending the previous twenty years in Italy.   Madame de Pompadour’s brother, the Marquis de Marigny, when he had been appointed Surintendant des bâtiments (Cultural Minister) under Louis XV, commissioned Vernet to paint a series of views for the crown of the major French ports.   Vernet had just started his first commission in Marseilles in 1754 when Marginy commissioned today’s work.    Vernet loved the sea and seascapes but his most favourite subject was his dramatic portrayal of shipwrecks and all the emotions that went hand in hand with such disasters.

As we look at the painting we see a dreadful storm and shipwreck scene.  Torrential rain is pouring down on the battered remains of the wrecked ship and its hapless survivors.   The white-crested seas push the broken ship further onto the jagged rocks.  In the background, we can see another ship which is being unmercifully tossed about on the stormy sea but remains out of harm’s way.  In the foreground we see survivors just about clinging to life as they lie on the rocks.   Some are being helped to drag themselves out of the stormy waters and onto the slippery rocks to escape the jaws of certain death.  To the right we see a fort perched on a rocky outcrop.  A tree with its roots embedded in the rocks clings perilously to its elevated position in the face of gale-force winds.  Along the walls leading up to the fort, we see spectators looking down on the unfolding drama.

Some of the survivors

Like a number of his paintings, Vermet has cleverly utilised the effects of light in order to create visual excitement.  He has cleverly contrasted the darkness of the sea and the rocks with the blue sky which is emerging from behind the black storm clouds.   Venet’s figure drawing and his mastery of the portrayal of human emotions through gestures was his forte and you need to stand close up to the painting to take in the minutiae of the details