"What's astonishing is that the artist is able to recall these effects at two hundred leagues from nature herself, that the only model present to him is the one in his own imagination; that he paints with incredible speed; that he says `Let there be light,' and the light appears[.]" – Denis Diderot, reviewing Vernet's work at the Salon of 1767. Quoted in Oeuvres de Denis Diderot: Salons: Salon de 1767, vol. 2 (Paris : J.L.J. Brière, 1821), p. 227.
Claude-Joseph Vernet was a leading French landscape artist who was instrumental in developing the genre of marine painting. His works combined topographical accuracy with a poetic sensibility, devoting considerable attention to atmospheric effects, delicate lighting, and dramatic skies. He maintained a fairly consistent style throughout his career, favouring subjects such as shipwrecks, moonlit scenes, stormy skies, and sunsets.
Born in the papal city of Avignon in 1714, Vernet was introduced to artistic practice by his father, Antoine, a modest painter. As a boy, Claude-Joseph received training in the ateliers of the history painter Philippe Sauvan in Avignon, and the marine painter Jacques Viali in Aix-en-Provence. From 1734-1756 he studied in Rome, which was at the time a hub of artistic activity and a major destination for tourists and students of neoclassicism. During this period, Vernet was greatly influenced by the marine painter, Adrien Manglard, and by the aesthetic tradition established by the master landscape painter, Claude Lorrain. He quickly developed a network of admirers and patrons (many of whom were English tourists), cultivating his reputation as the principal landscape painter in Rome (View of Lake Nemi, 1748).
When he returned to France in 1753, he was immediately received into the French Academy, and was awarded one of the most significant commissions of the era: a series of views of the ports of France, commissioned by King Louis XV. For this project, Vernet travelled throughout the country between 1753 and 1762, with his family and assistant, Pierre-Jacques Volaire, in tow. The result was a series of fifteen topographically accurate marine views that were nonetheless imaginative in their depiction of atmospheric effects and their inclusion of picturesque figures. Vernet's fame began to decline after 1776, but he had a lasting impact on several English painters, including Richard Wilson and Joseph Wright of Derby.