Born in Avignon in 1714, Claude-Joseph Vernet was first introduced to painting by his father, Antoine. Before long he was working in the studio of Philippe Sauvan, the city's leading master, and had built enough connections in Avignon - still a papal territory in the early 18th century - to secure sponsorship for an Italian sojourn. By the time he was about twenty-four, Vernet had settled in Rome, where he would remain for the next two decades. There his art was supported by commissions for France's Ambassador to Rome, Paul-Hippolyte, Duc de Saint-Aignan, who was an avid supporter of young French artists living abroad. Well-established as an independent master by 1738, Vernet was elected to the Accademia di San Luca in 1743, an achievement that marked his recognition in the contemporary artistic community in Rome.
Vernet's canvases are comprised primarily of landscape and marine scenes in which texture, detail, and light are carefully observed and characterized by diverse brushwork that lends life to his compositions. His early works bear much in common with the topographical paintings of Canaletto and Piranesi and were appealing to European visitors making their way through Rome on the Grand Tour. Indeed, Grand Tourists became Vernet's most extensive and consistent patrons during his stay in Italy. As he developed, Vernet explored more imaginary scenes, but even when fanciful, his vistas often include sites that would have been recognizable to travelers on the Italian itinerary. His wild stormy compositions are reminiscent of the work of Salvator Rosa and his picturesque seaport views evoke Claude Lorrain, though often with a keener sense of naturalistic observation than found in the paintings of either great predecessor.
After he was invited to exhibit at the Paris Salon for the first time, Vernet returned to France in 1753. Almost immediately thereafter he began work on his most important commission, The Ports of France, meant largely to serve as propaganda for the French merchant and royal navies under Louis XV. In order to complete the series, Vernet traveled extensively throughout the French coast, producing views of seaports from Antibes to La Rochelle, but left the project unfinished in 1765.
The present picture is signed and dated '1766', just after Vernet abandoned the Ports of France series. It exemplifies the artist's exceptional ability to represent the effects of light, here diffused in the form of a gentle sunrise that warms the sky and awakens a handful of sea birds. According to Vernet's accounts, the painting was commissioned by "Monsieur de Presle" and promised for delivery six months later.