Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 50 x 82 cm
Signed: and dated lower left: J. VERNET F./1753
This painting is typical of Vernet’s Italianate landscapes made in the second half of the 1740s and the 1750s, during his last few years of residence in Italy and following his definitive return to France in 1753. As the artist made several visits back to France between 1751 and 1753, it is hard to tell if the present painting was made on Italian or French soil, but it is so thoroughly Italianate in subject and derivation that it does not matter.
It would be fascinating to know the identity of the first owner of An Italianate River Landscape, and whether or not the picture was commissioned. The middle distance, with its pastoral scene of shepherd and flock, the craggy hillside and the picturesque arrangement of classical, medieval and Renaissance buildings is one of Vernet’s strongest recollections of the Italianate tradition of ideal landscape. This tradition can be traced directly back through Claude and Domenichino in the 17th century to Annibale Carracci. Indeed, such a strong reminiscence of that tradition becomes touching when we realise that the painting was made in the year Vernet left his beloved Italy forever.
However, An Italianate River Landscape does not have any morally elevating or serious message. It shows a group of fisherfolk on a riverbank, two of them pulling in nets while a third man looks on and two women gossip. Travelers are on the road to the left, while in the distance figures embark on a small boat and a shepherd quietly tends his sheep on the far bank. It is an idyllic scene, where man is at peace with nature in a perfect climate. The landscape, buildings and distant blue mountains suggest some corner of the Roman Campagna near the foothills of the Alban hills or some part of the Apennine range. Like all Vernet’s landscapes of this kind, it is not a view of a specific, identifiable place, but is created in his imagination from his observations on his innumerable trips around Rome and into the surrounding countryside.
It is apt, although certainly only coincidental, that Vernet’s first name should be Claude. The warm, unifying light of a painting such as An Italianate River Landscape immediately calls to mind the light of Vernet’s great predecessor. However, Vernet’s painting is less elevated and idealised than Claude’s – typical of his time and place, Vernet is a more down-to-earth observer. We can identify more easily with his cast of characters and the convincing world they inhabit. But the careful balance of his composition, with its framing trees and hills, winding river, happy marriage of architecture and landscape, misty distance and harmonious light, all place him within the great tradition of Franco-Italian landscape painting.