Monday, 10 September 2018

Joseph Vernet - The people of the Ports of France

One would say ... that he begins by creating the country, and that he has men, women and children in reserve from which he peoples his canvas, as one populates colonies;  then he makes for the the weather, the sky, the season, the happiness, the unhappiness that pleases him...Jupiter calls that to govern the world, and he is wrong.  Vernet calls that to make paintings, and he is right.
The marquis de Marigny, commenting on the art of Vernet.

Joseph Vernet's magnificent paintings of the Ports of France represent one of the most joyous accomplishments of 18th-century culture.  Today if we wanted official testimony to the diversity and commercial vibrancy of a country's ports, we would probably produce plans and statistics; in the 18th-century the French government commissioned a great artist to create a series of ambitious and visionary landscape paintings depicting the life of the ports in all its glory.

All but two of Vernet's series are normally on  display in the Musée nationale de la marine in Paris which is at present closed for refurbishment. The following is taken mostly from the museum's multimedia presentation., As well as background information, the resource provides reproductions, with zooms onto particular details. I have concentrated mainly on the people: Vernet includes a wealth of little genre scenes, which amount to a facinating - albeit slightly idealised - social record.

The Ports of France on display in the Musée de la marine in Paris
All of the paintings are oil on canvas, with the same dimensions of 165cm  by 263 cm.


In March 1753, after twenty years in Rome, the landscape painter Joseph Vernet moved to Marseilles with his family. The reason which prompted him to leave Italy, where he enjoyed a high reputation and assured income, remains obscure.  According to one hypothesis, his father-in-law, a captain in the papal navy,  had run foul of the Inquisition and needed his support.  Equally, there may have been professional reasons: in 1752 an an Academy of Painting was in Marseilles under the protection of the governer of Provence, the duc de Villars and the Royal Superintendant of Buildings, the marquis de Marigny.  On 27th September 1754 Vernet found himself well placed when Marigny commissioned him to paint "all the ports of France".  He presented the first of his two views of Marseilles in mid-October.  The  pictures were exhibited to acclaim in Paris in the Salon of 1755.

Entrance to the Port of Marseilles, 1754 

The first canvas depicts the tête de More, a promontory situated to the right of the entrance to the port, which was an established lieu de promenade for the society of Marseilles. In the background stand the fort Saint-Jean and the citadel of Saint-Nicolas which defended the entry to the harbour.  In the mid-ground a three-masted vessel makes its way out to sea guided by two tugs. Around it are a multitude of other smaller vessels - fishing boats and pleasure craft. 

This picture is particularly rich in figures - Vernet's noted that he  depicts the "various amusements of the inhabitants of the town". 

A group of the well-to-do  - possibly the friends and relations of Vernet - picnic on the rocks in the morning sunshine: the tablecloth is spread out, the glasses full of red wine, the conversation  animated. 

In the foreground Vernet depicts himself at work, in the company of his father-in-law Mark Parker, and his young son Livio. He includes the portrait of a famous Marseilles character, a fisherman called Annibal Camoux who was said to be 117 years old.The woman in yellow with a blue hat who presents him is in all probability Vernet's wife Virginie..

To the right of the canvas a group of sailors and their wives perform an impromptu dance to  to the sound of flute and drum. Other people eat or read; young people swim or tend their nets.  At  the extreme left are naked bathers and fishermen with their trousers rolled up above their knees, searching for crabs and shellfish.

Interior of the Port of Marseilles, seen from the pavilion of the clocktower in the Park, 1754
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

This picture shows the basin of the port, framed by the facades of the dwellings and warehouses of the merchants. Sea-going ships are being careened or are about to depart,  surrounded by a crowd of smaller vessels. In the foreground Vernet showcases the diverse population of a great international port.

The paniers of the Marseillais merchants overflow with seafood and with the colourful produce of Provence - figues, quinces, oranges, peaches.  Turkish negociants can be seen in their exotic robes.

A group of elegantly attired ladies and seigneurs stand out in their fine silks, with a naval officer sporting his cross of the order of Saint-Louis;  a priest holds out his snuffbox whilst a beggar asks for alms.

View of the Gulf of Bandol:  The Madrague or fishing for tuna.
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Vernet largely completed his picture of Bandol by January 1754 when he was still working in Marseilles and it received a highly favourable reception in the Salon of 1755.  A "Madrague" is a seine net used in Mediterranean to capture tuna fish.  Once the huge fish are trapped, the fishermen bring up the net and set about them with boat hooks and harpoons. The first catches, in early spring, attacted crowds of spectators.  The scene takes place at sunrise, the normal time for fishing. The subject, which had been commissioned by Marigny, excited much comment from Parisians, who were totally unfamiliar with this battle between men and fish.

See Henri Farragio, "Données historiques sur les anciennes madragues françaises de Méditerranée", paper from the Tuna Trap Symposium May 2011


Vernet arrived in Toulon in September 1754 and exhibited three views of the Port in the Salon of 1757.  The first view, which focuses on the military activity of the port;  shows the new docks and naval shipyard.  In the foreground is the parc d'artillerie, where officers show visitors round, or exchange instructions with the engineers.

Toulon, View of the New Port, seen from the Artillery Ground, 1754 
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Toulon, View of the town and the roadstead of Toulon, 1756 

This second picture, very much a study of Toulon society, shows the view from a country house on the mountain behind the port.  Ladies and seigneurs assemble on a terrace where final preparations for luncheon are being made. The host greets his guests; gentlemen chat or play boules, huntsmen bring in their kill.

Toulon, View of the Old Port, from the warehouses for provisions, 1756 
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

In the 1750s Toulon had been one of the last ports to receive government  permission to participate in colonial commerce and the slave trade. Vernet's view of the old dock illustrates elements of the triangular trade:  grain and building materials from the metropolis piled up awaiting export;  barrels of sugar or rum imported from the Caribbean being loaded onto wagons.

 In the centre well-dressed investors point out a lone black man hoisting a barrel, perhaps of sugar.

When the arsenal in Marseilles was closed down in 1748 the galleys were temporarily transferred to Toulon, where they remained until 1762.  Vernet depicts an alignment of eleven galleys: two are ready for sea; the others, covered with a black and white canvas tent, serve as lodging for the chiourmeBy this period the galeriens were mainly employed in the docks; some can be seen in the crowd, wearing their bonnets rouges and dragging their heavy chains.

The Port of Antibes, viewed from the land, 1756
Musée national de la Marine, Paris
Early in 1756, with his three paintings of Toulon completed, Vernet moved on to Antibes.  During his stay he took the opportunity to return to his native Avignon, where he was greeted with enthusiasm.  

Vernet seems to have been less interested in the maritime activity of the sleepy port than in  capturing the landscape of the French Riviera. His composition shows a sunset, against the dramatic backdrop of the Alps.  The scene is full of the oranges and other fruits and flowers of spring.   Two groups of young niçoises pick figs and oranges.  A peasant woman, in the straw hat typical of the region, offers a lady a bouquet of orange blossoms, whilst an officer and a woman with a parasol admire the sunset from a terrace.  

To the left can be seen the famous Fort Carré of Antibes. In the foreground a band of the troops  enter the port with their waggon and possessions, accompanied impatiently by an officer on horseback, with a tricorne hat.

View of the port of Cette, 1756-57
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

Vernet stayed for six months in Cette [Sète] from November 1756 to May 1757. After he had completed his preliminary sketches, he wanted to move on to Bordeaux but Marigny insisted that he stay and finish the canvas in situ.  The port is depicted from the seaward side, in one of the storms which so often occurred there. A Maltese brigantine, unable to enter the harbour, rides out the weather on a sandbank. This composition too was received with enthusiasm in Paris; Fréron, for example, commended Vernet in the Année littéraire, for his capture of one of the "most striking spectacles of nature".  


Joseph Vernet, Ports de France. Multi-media presentation, Musée de la Marine

Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire, "Les ports au xviiie siècle", L'histoire par l'image, Dec.2012

P.-A.-M. Miger Les ports de France peints par Joseph Vernet et Hue (Paris 1812)

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