No longer installed in line of battle but tucked away at the stern of the museum under a large oculus where the golds of La Réale seem to float, the series of Views of the Ports of France, due to Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), the most talented of marine painters, was the subject of a restoration in Versailles. Within the castle, in the spaces allocated to the Research and Restoration Center of the Museums of France.
“These large formats were not in bad condition,” explains Damien Bril in charge of the paintings. Alix Laveau and the team from her company Arts Conservation International were mainly tasked with replacing the varnishes which had yellowed. The difficulty was to work simultaneously. This is to preserve overall coherence, such as the harmony of the different skies or the patina of the golden frames.” The result, the fruit of several months of work, is there. Life bursts forth in these panoramic scenes, syntheses of the Dutch horizons of the Golden Age, the Roman distances of Claude Gellée and the truculence of Venetian Vedutism.
The order placed in 1753 by Louis XV is also remarkable for its documentary nature. A whole people are active in the foreground, at the auctions, in the rope works or the arsenals while proud vessels are born, set sail or dock. Sète, Antibes, Toulon, Marseille (where Vernet appeared among the cosmopolitan onlookers, sailors and merchants), La Rochelle as well as the estuaries of Bordeaux, Bayonne and Rochefort are gradually magnified. Lush quays with their freshly built mansions, fishing results and more exotic foodstuffs brought. Generous hinterland, symbols of abundance. And always these immense iodized skies, powerful like the azure of France and good to breathe like so many promises of adventure.
We fell in love with Dieppe, a medieval village with its cliff and its silver-gray haven where the soft light combines with the harshness of the waves of the Channel. But Mediterraneans or Atlantic lovers are free to prefer their pink mornings or their capricious squalls. They are there too. The Louvre therefore maintains its long-term deposit of thirteen of these fifteen views, retaining an Entrance to the port of Marseille and The City and Harbor of Toulon which are duplicates.
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In all, Vernet was to create twenty-five paintings. History and death stopped him. But its whole is a masterful testimony to the rediscovered French maritime ambition. And as we can see, his student Jean-François Hue, appointed by the Constituent Assembly, continued the business.