This delightfully picturesque view dates from Vernet's maturity, after the artist had been encouraged to return to Paris from Rome by the marquis de Marigny, the French Minister of the Arts and brother of the king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Vernet arrived in Paris in 1753, was elected a member of the Royal Academy and started work on a series of large topographical pictures, painted in situ, of the Ports of France, one of the most important royal commissions of the reign of Louis XV. Indeed, in 1759, the same year Vernet painted this view of Montferrat, he completed an impressive second View of the Port of Bordeaux and exhibited his first View of Bordeaux at the Paris Salon (Louvre, Paris). During this period Vernet's regular exhibits at the Salon garnered much praise from critics as exacting as the philosophe, Diderot, who maintained that the excellence of Vernet's figure drawing and his mastery of gesture and expression raised his landscapes to the level of history painting.
Vernet particularly delighted in twinning dramatic storm views with sunny views of calm, such as the present picture, which allowed him to compare and contrast dramatically different approaches to nature and the emotions it inspires. He further expanded the range of landscape painting by experimenting with a variety of atmospheric and light effects, ostensibly depicting differing times of the day, but again often used to underscore the emotional content of the subject. The view of Montferrat is typical of Vernet's scenes of calm, showing fisherfolk in harmony with nature, collecting their abundant early morning catch, spreading out their nets to dry and gutting fish beside the river. Much of the picture's interest resides in the skilful way in which the artist depicts how the cool blue tones of early morning seen in the foreground are suddenly dispelled by the dawn sunshine that tinges the façades of the medieval village with a rosy glow. A note of threat is provided by the dramatic location: the roaring torrent of the river Nartuby in the Gorges de Verdon. Beyond, the chapel of Notre Dame de Beauvoir and the lowering medieval tower and village of Montferrat perch precariously on a rocky escarpment, from which a waterfall dramatically tumbles to the rocks below. In the foreground a blasted tree inscribes a powerful diagonal across the centre of the composition; a note of natural savagery at odds with the civilising aqueduct seen in the distance. Such mingling of the beautiful and the threatening recalls the ideals of the Picturesque and the Sublime seen in contemporary writings on aesthetics, such as Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) and demonstrates how advanced Vernet's vision of nature was at the time. Indeed, Vernet's example was to prove of paramount importance in contributing to the developing eighteenth-century sensitivity to the experience of Nature in all its moods that would ultimately lead to the emergence of the Romantic Movement.
The identification of the location of the picture as the village of Montferrat, near Draguignan in the Var, derives from the title of the contemporary engraving after the work by Le Veau: Vue proche du Mont-Ferrat (fig. 1). Vernet's daybook reveals that engravers invented some of the titles of the engravings after his works in order to make their prints more saleable. In this case, however, some of the features depicted do indeed exist at Montferrat, albeit in a different configuration. Montferrat, for example, is noted for its dramatic location cradled in the rocky gorges de Verdon and does have an ancient aqueduct, but one that flows underground not over ground. Allowing for a certain amount of artistic licence and exaggeration, Vernet may have been intentionally evoking written descriptions of the famous beauty spot and then elaborating on them imaginatively in the manner of a capriccio.
The engraving also tells us that the picture belonged in the eighteenth century to 'Mr Godefroy de Villetaneuse'. Charles-Théodose Godefroy (1718-1796), the son of the rich banker and goldsmith Charles Godefroy, came from a cultured art-loving family. His father sponsored Jean-Baptiste Massé to engrave Charles Le Brun's famous ceilings of the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) from the château de Versailles in 1723 and the following decade commissioned portraits of his sons, Charles-Théodose and Auguste-Gabriel, from Chardin (Young Man with a Violin, c. 1734, (fig. 2) and Young Man with a Spinning Top, 1737, both Louvre, Paris). In adult life, Charles-Théodose became an écuyer (equerry), a capitoul (councillor) of Toulouse (1750) and Lord of Villetaneuse, now part of the suburbs of Northern Paris. Godefroy was a great lover of music, a friend of the composer Grétry, and a collector of art. Other works, by contemporary artists such as Boucher, were engraved from his collection and he was drawn by Cochin and sculpted by Marie-Anne Collot, a pupil of Falconnet. His name appears regularly in Vernet's daybook, and it is highly probable that he bought this view of Montferrat directly from the artist (see L. Lagrange, Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIème siècle, Paris, 1864, pp. 189, 342-3, 352-3, 364, 392, 413, 430, 465). He may have met Vernet through his younger brother as Auguste-Gabriel Godefroy, also a keen collector, worked for the Naval Ministry, for whom the Ports of France series were intended.
In the nineteenth century the picture lost its identification as a view of Montferrat when it was sold in the Delessert sale of 1869 and described as a dramatic landscape with aqueduct and fisherfolk (Ingersoll-Smouse, op. cit., I, p. 91, no. 720). Vernet's picture has remained in Paris ever since and is now to be included in Emilie Beck's forthcoming complete catalogue of the artist's work.