On the banks of a wide meandering river, men and women are catching fish. Vernet has used the brightly lit woman in red and the jutting tree as devices to draw our eye into the composition. A man with a rod and a basket of fish sits next to the river with his back to a large mossy rock. His dog has been alerted to something in the water, but the fishing line is slack – perhaps the fisherman is just about to get a bite. Vernet reused the temple-like building in the middle ground, with its echoes of the Pantheon in Rome, in several of his other paintings.
The perspective is enhanced by the zigzag of the river between the rocky banks (resembling stage scenery) and also by the way that the landscape becomes paler as it recedes into the distance. Vernet’s idealised vision of the Italianate landscape continues the classical landscape tradition of Claude and Poussin.
On the banks of a wide meandering river, men and women are catching fish. The brightly lit woman in red standing in the left foreground draws our eye to her companions, who are mostly shaded by the black cloud looming overhead. A man with a rod and a basket of fish sits next to the river with his back to a large mossy rock. His dog has been alerted to something in the water but the fishing line is slack – perhaps the fisherman is just about to get a bite. A second woman leans against the rock, her head in her hand, while another man reclines on the ground and a third leans over beside the water.
Vernet has placed another two fishermen, one wearing a coat of a darker shade of red, on a rock projecting out into the river to draw our eye further into the distance. A third group of figures with a boat are depicted as simple grey silhouettes beyond the classical building that resembles a church or temple on the right-hand riverbank in the middle ground. This building, with its echoes of the Pantheon in Rome, appears again 22 years later at the left of Vernet’s A Landscape at Sunset, as well as in other paintings by him. The artful reuse of different combinations of motifs for his imagined scenes was one of the hallmarks of Vernet’s work. In the far distance a sunlit town stands on top of a crag and another very distant hill is silhouetted blue against the sky. The style of the classical building and the hilltop town with its tall tower suggests that this tranquil scene is intended to evoke an idealised vision of the Italian countryside. The composition does not represent an identifiable place and is broadly similar to other paintings by Vernet of the period.
The tall, thin tree jutting from the left foreground creates a strong diagonal to both emphasise and contrast with the other diagonals that Vernet has used to construct his composition. The tree and the figures on the right frame the scene and draw the eye into the picture – a compositional device commonly used by landscape painters and known in French as a ‘repoussoir’. The huge rocky cliffs to either side of the river act like the wings of a stage set to create the impression of the landscape receding into depth. The effect of distance is enhanced by the zigzag of the river between the rocky banks and also by Vernet’s accomplished use of aerial perspective. The golden light low on the hilltop town and on the women in the foreground suggests that this may be early morning or late evening – the best times of day for catching fish.
The forbidding rocks and angular trees show the influence of Salvator Rosa, but the soft light, calm sky and restful appearance of Vernet’s figures creates an atmosphere that is quite different to Rosa’s work. Soon after the painting was bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1879, it was described by The Times newspaper as ‘nature, but nature looked at through the light of previous art – Claude and Gaspar Poussin in particular.’
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