Claude–Joseph Vernet was one of the most famous landscape and marine painters in Europe during the second half of the 18th century. After his initial schooling in his native Avignon and in Aix–en–Provence, the 20–year–old artist traveled to Rome in 1734. He studied there for a brief time with the French–born marine painter Adrien Manglard, but quickly established his own reputation. Vernet made sketching trips in and around Rome and along the Mediterranean coast as far south as Naples, capturing scenes that provided the basic repertoire for the rest of his long career. He was soon sought after by Roman collectors, as well as by French diplomats in Italy and the many wealthy travelers from north of the Alps, especially the British making their Grand Tour. For these patrons Vernet painted views of Rome and Naples, and imaginary landscapes and coastal scenes—often in pairs or a set of four.
The Shipwreck epitomizes the type of marine subject for which Vernet was best known. It was commissioned, along with a pendant Mediterranean Coast by Moonlight (location unknown since c. 1955), by Lord Arundell in November 1771. The Shipwreck formed a dramatic contrast with the peaceful, moonlit coast scene, illustrating respectively the "sublime" (eliciting a sensation of horror in the spectator) and the "beautiful" (an agreeable and reposeful sensation), concepts that were much discussed in aesthetic discourse of the day. A ship flying a Dutch flag has foundered on a rocky seashore during a dramatic storm. Wind crashes the waves, bends a tree to breaking point, and sends clouds scudding across the sky, while a red zigzag crack of lightning illuminates a harbor town farther along the coast. Survivors from the wreck are distraught, exhausted, or just grateful to have clambered ashore. As the ship takes a final lurch against the rocks, desperate survivors slide down a rope in an attempt to reach the land. Shipwrecks were a real travel hazard in the 18th century, similar to automobile and plane crashes in our own time. Vernet painted the scene with lively brushwork, corresponding to the various effects of clouds, waves, and foam; his figures, however, were carefully and precisely rendered.
(Text by Philip Conisbee, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)