The Shipwreck Paintings of Joseph Vernet: An Iconographic Study

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The theme of storm and shipwreck was a popular one in eighteenth-century literature, music, opera, and plays as well as in painting. Joseph Vernet (1714-1789) used this theme and became renowned for his paintings of tempest and shipwreck. For fifty-five years, Joseph Vernet's paintings of a coastal shipwreck attracted an international clientele. For them he depicted a vivid variety of clouds, turbulent seas, disabled ships, and the viscissitudes of the living and the dead. Trained by the followers of Pierre Puget in marine painting in Provence, Vernet had observed a tempest during his voyage from Marseille to Civitavecchia in 1734. For the figures in his paintings Vernet drew on the traditional motives of marine and Christian art. Other pictorial sources were the works of Salvator Rosa, Claude Gelee, Adam Elsheimer, and Tempesta, but his observation of nature and "on the spot" sketches were the basis of his paintings. A shipwreck scene often was one of the series of of the four times of day. Vernet's paintings in Italy mingled the post-shipwreck activities with other seaside pursuits in a spacious landscape. After his move to France in 1753, Vernet emphasized the rescue of people. Shipwrecked families were his contribution to the portrayal of drama in family life, which was an important current in art in the middle of the eighteenth century. During his last decade, Vernet's shipwreck scenes featured a closer connection among the persons depicted. He also showed a more compact, wellkept version of the edifice, which stands above the wrecked vessel. Throughout his career Vernet limited the violence in his shipwreck scenes to the forces of nature while portraying the noble behavior of ordinary people.