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The Storm

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The Storm

oil on canvas
38 1/2 in. x 53 in. (97.79 cm x 134.62 cm)
Museum Purchase: Jennie F. Fracker and Inez M. Olney Funds, 1977.27

Claude-Joseph Vernet



The Storm by Claude-Joseph Vernet depicts the height of a powerful tempest at sea. The waters eddy and waves crash around a group of figures, all but one of whom have made it safely to a rocky cove. In the distance, on the left, the violently listing masts and sails of an English sloop-of-war are visible. Additional sailing ships appear in the distance. To the right, a windblown tree clings to a rocky ledge; a harbor town lies beyond it. The middle of the composition is given over to the plight of the human victims. They act out a variety of dramatic scenes, from mourning over a dead body to attempting to steer the last rowboat to shore. A small dog watches, its tail between its legs. Above this group towers a castle poised high on a cliff. The castle and its rocky mount are illuminated by a patch of sunlight and a pocket of blue amid an otherwise dark and cloudy sky.

Context and Analysis

The Storm was one of a series of four pictures depicting contrasting times of day and changes in the weather, commissioned by an English patron, the Third Duke of Bridgewater, in 1756. Its subject—the harrowing aftermath of a shipwreck and the sublime power of the natural elements—was a favorite of Vernet, and of his patrons and contemporaries. Vernet’s unique contribution to this well-established genre was the seamless combination of imaginary circumstances, familiar historical referents, and details painted directly onto the canvas or taken from studies made outdoors, en plein air. Legend holds that Vernet once strapped himself to the mast of a ship during a violent storm at sea, in order to fully comprehend nature’s fury and render it more persuasively in paint.

Vernet’s enthralling, proto-Romantic style, and his talent for adding elements of human interest and decorative effect, earned him numerous commissions in Europe and in England. In England especially, his landscapes and marine paintings appealed to people recently returned from the Grand Tour. (The Grand Tour was an extended tour of the Continent, and sometimes countries further afield, undertaken, by young gentlemen as part of their education.) In 1753, after living in Italy for twenty years, Vernet returned to France at the request of King Louis XV in order to complete fifteen monumental canvases depicting French seaports.


Vernet’s practice of creating contrasting pairs or cycles of works offers a comparison to the epic landscape series of Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, artists of the Hudson River School represented in the Currier’s permanent collection (Currier, 2002.20.19, 1980.7, 1981.68). The sublime intensity of Vernet’s most popular paintings provides a striking counterpoint to the landscape images of the Hudson River School and to American Luminist paintings of the same period (Currier, 2002.20.6, 1962.13, 2002.20.38, 2002.20.48, 2002.20.30). The Currier’s collection includes storm-related images in a variety of mediums and from different historical periods (Currier, 1972.20, 2002.20.33, 1978.34, 1938.1, 2011.6, 1982.66, 2009.40.26, 1985.38).

The “blasted tree” that figures regularly in Vernet’s work pays homage to the great landscape painter Salvator Rosa (1615–73). Rosa’s influence is apparent in many artists’ works in the Currier’s permanent collection (Currier, 1950.4). Vernet’s concerted efforts to record firsthand nature in all its manifestations recalls the scientific examination of clouds, water, and atmospheric effects by artists as diverse as John Constable, Claude Monet, and Adolph Gottlieb (Currier, 1959.8, 1949.1, 1979.16)—though Vernet takes this study to the extreme.

Written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.


Conisbee, Philip. Claude-Joseph Vernet 1714–1789: France’s Most Famous Landscape and Marine Painter of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat. London: Greater London Council, 1976.

Conisbee, Philip. “Salvator Rosa and Claude-Joseph Vernet.” Burlington Magazine 115, no. 849 (December 1973): 789–94.

Conisbee, Philip. “Vernet in Italy.” In Pittura toscana e pittura europea nel secolo dei lumi: atti del convegno, Pisa, Domus Galilaeana 3–4 dicembre 1990, ed. Roberto Paolo Ciardi et al. Florence: SPES, [1993].

George, Hardy S. Tempests: Tempests and Romantic Visionaries, Images of Storms in European and American Art. Exh. cat. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2006.

“Horace Vernet.” Illustrated Magazine of Art 1, no. 4 (1853): 192–202.

Levitine, George. “Vernet Tied to a Mast in a Storm: The Evolution of an Episode of Art Historical Romantic Folklore.” Art Bulletin 49, no. 2 (June 1967): 93–100.

The Storm by Claude-Joseph Vernet.” Currier Gallery of Art Bulletin (1977): 14–26.

1979 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, "Small Gallery on a Large Scale." June 16 - July 29.

1986 Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, "Masterpieces from the Currier Gallery of Art." Sept. 11 - Nov. 2.

2017-18 Currier Museum of Art, "Going Baroque." Dec. 9, 2017-Aug. 2018

Commissioned by Francis 3rd (last Duke of Bridgewater), Bridgewater Collection, Cleveland House, 1753
Descended to Earls of Ellesmere, 1803
Trustees of the Ellesmere Settlement
Christie's, lot 84, July 2, 1976
Purchased by Thomas Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London, England, 1976
Purchased by Currier Gallery of Art, 1977

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