The Outer Harbor of Brest

Henri Joseph van Blarenberghe (French, Lille 1750–1826 Lille)
Oil on canvas
29 1/4 x 42 1/8 in. (74.3 x 107 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. Vincent Astor, 1978
Accession Number:
Not on view
Between 1753 and 1765, in fulfillment of a commission from Louis XV, Joseph Vernet (1714–1789) completed highly complex, detailed views of many of the important ports of France. However, he abandoned the project before painting Brest, in Brittany.

Later, when the secretary of state for the navy wished to present evidence of the building works in Brest, Louis Nicolas van Blarenberghe (1716–1794) was engaged. Between January 18 and April 2, 1773, six gouaches documenting the harbor and naval facilities at Brest were prepared jointly with his son Henri Joseph van Blarenberghe. Finished views were painted later. As Louis Nicolas was principally a miniaturist, the present canvas is attributed to the younger artist, who describes in compelling detail not only the military features of the port but its soldiers, sailors, and citizenry.
Between 1753 and 1765 Joseph Vernet (1714–1789) completed fifteen views of the ports of France in fulfillment of a royal commission; he abandoned the project before visiting Brest. This port in Brittany, a major naval station, had been rebuilt, and the secretary of state for the navy wished to present evidence of the improvements to the King. He hired Louis Nicolas van Blarenberghe (1716–1794), who requested that his son Henri Joseph accompany him (the two worked in collaboration from 1769 until 1778); they prepared six watercolor and gouache studies of the port between January 18 and April 2, 1773. These were the first step in the commission to "create for the Department of the Navy all the views of the interior and of the exterior of the city and port of Brest." The studies (Musée du Louvre, Paris) provided information for finished views, including this one, and were supplemented by drawings made "sur le vif" (from the life) of figures on the water and animating the banks.

In a letter of 1774 from Louis Nicolas to Antoine de Sartine (1729–1801), the new secretary of state for the navy, four finished paintings are mentioned, three by Louis Nicolas and one by Henri Joseph. Two had been delivered, including one by Henri Joseph made for "le cabinet de Monseigneur à Versailles" (the office of [Sartine] at Versailles). This is likely a larger oil painting dated 1774 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest). It is generally assumed that the canvases are by Henri Joseph, as Louis Nicolas worked more or less exclusively in gouache. Ours follows the 1773 Louvre study that is inscribed "Tableau du port de Brest pris de la mâture (L'avant-port de Brest)," or "Painting of the Harbor of Brest taken from the Masting Machine (The Outer Harbor of Brest)." A masting machine was employed to lower a mast timber into holes cut in the decks of a ship.

[Katharine Baetjer 2010]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left): van Blarenberghe f. 1773
?[Lebrun, Paris, until 1806; his sale, Lebrun, Paris, September 29, 1806, no. 158, "Blaremberg. La Vue intérieure du Port de Brest, oû l'on remarque différens bâtimens de guerre, dans l'un desquels se fait un embarquement de troupes. Grand nombre de personnages sont sur les quais, & dans le fond s'offre des vaisseaux en construction . . . . Hauteur 27 pouces & demi, largeur 39 pouces & demi (29 1/4 x 42 in.)," for Fr 154 to ?Richard]; ?Clément de Ris (from about 1808; 40 x 70 cm); ?sale, Paris; ?[Baur, Paris, in 1864]; Vincent Astor, New York (bought in Brest; 1920s–d. 1959); Mrs. Vincent Astor, New York (1959–78)
Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. "Landscape Painting in the East and West," April 19–June 1, 1986, no. 8.

Kobe City Museum. "Landscape Painting in the East and West," June 7–July 13, 1986, no. 8.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "In Miniature," August 29–December 28, 2014, no catalogue.

L. Clément de Ris. "Le Port de Brest, par Blarenberghe." L'Artiste, 6th ser., 2 (1856), p. 55, states that his family owned the painting by Blarenberghe from the Lebrun sale, and that it belonged to Baur, an antique dealer, but misstates the size.

A[uguste]. Jal. Dictionnaire critique de biographie et d'histoire: errata et supplément pour tous les dictionnaires historiques d'après des documents authentiques inédits. 2nd ed. Paris, 1872, pp. 225–26, publishes a 1774 letter sent by Van Blarenberghe to Monseigneur de Sartine; describes in detail this work, noting that in 1864 it belonged to Baur; ascribes it to Blarenberghe père, whom he misnames Henri Désiré.

Eric M. Zafran. The Rococo Age: French Masterpieces of the Eighteenth Century. Exh. cat., High Museum of Art. Atlanta, 1983, p. 140, no. 68, ill. p. 132 (color).

Monique Maillet. Letter to Katharine Baetjer. January 26, 1998, identifies it with a picture in the "dépot" of the navy in 1774, and believes it is also the work with Baur in 1864.

Monique Maillet-Chassagne. Une dynastie de peintres lillois, les Van Blarenberghe. Paris, 2001, pp. 194–95, colorpl. XXVI–XXVII, attributes it to Henri Joseph van Blarenberghe, and much closer to the study in the Louvre, which she ascribes to him as well, than to a gouache of the same scene (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest), which she gives to Louis Nicolas.

Monique Maillet-Chassagne and Irène de Château-Thierry. Catalogue raisonné des œuvres des Van Blarenberghe (1680–1826). Lille, 2004, pp. 57, 296, 343, 347, 350–51, no. 3-811-13bis, ill., note that no oils are attributable to Louis Nicolas; identify the six studies in the Louvre, made by Louis Nicolas with his son, as the basis for the finished views; believe another picture, rather than ours, was made for the navy "dépot".

Jean-François Méjanès in Les Van Blarenberghe, des reporters du XVIIIe siècle. Ed. Jean-François Méjanès. Exh. cat., Musée du Louvre. Ghent, 2006, pp. 67, 69–71, 76, fig. 4 (color), attributes our picture to Henri Joseph; assumes that Louis Nicolas, like Vernet in 1753, was asked to produce two finished paintings of the harbor at Brest, but notes that one oil and three gouaches are recorded; wonders if the oil painting for "le dépot de la marine qui est dans le cabinet de Monseigneur à Versailles" could be ours.