Construction of a Major Road by Claude-Joseph Vernet

12th January 2001 at 00:00
(Photograph) - One change leads to another. Think of transport and communications. Before the Internet revolution, there was the computer electronics revolution and television. Before that, air travel, radar and radio; before that, the automobile and the telephone; before that, steam trains and the telegraph; and before that, mass production of coal and steel and the reliable delivery of letter post.

Before each huge change in the western world, another huge change was necessary. But what about the coming of roads? Without that, reliable communication of information or goods was impossible.

It is 1774. In the French countryside, workers are toiling on one of the Bourbon dynasty's grands projets - a graded road to connect centres of population across untamed valleys and streams. Although the scene is shambolic compared to such an enterprise today, we can see that this activity requires complex organisation.

In the background, workers use rickety cranes to complete a bridge across the mountain torrent, while, to the fore of the picture, labourers lay the final surface. An entire landscape is being drastically altered before our eyes.

The painting clearly shows the difference - crucial for later development - between a road and a track. A track is worn through frequent use. It is the easiest, though not necessarily the most direct, way between two places. Its surface is beaten mud, uneven, potholed in rough weather, liable to damage, slippage and erosion. A road is planned. Its route is engineered, as is its gradient and width. Most importantly, perhaps, its surface can sustain decades of heavy use.

In this picture, "Construction of a Major Road", the rough ground is being hacked out and overlaid with hewn stone. This would have gven a rougher surface than today's asphalt-covered highways, but one that could endure the harsh passage of thin, iron-clad carriage wheels and the sharp blows of horses' shoes.

Here, the process is already far advanced. The road from the big town on top of the hill, with its tall buildings and windmill, has been carefully planned and cut from the sides of steep hills. As final work goes on clearing rocks away from the road, a horse and cart tips the spoil down into the river bed. Men on horseback, wearing the tricorne hats, wigs, gold-frogged coats and fine stockings of important personages, are clearly checking on progress, supervised by the man in the brown coat and rather plainer, though still respectable, clothes. Is the work on time? There is some air of apologetic explanation.

Along the side of the road, some cheerful women are running an impromptu canteen for the workers.

The artist, Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), was frequently employed by Louis XV to record such important works. In the late 18th century he made 15 paintings of new harbours alone. His technique, most often used for landscape and seascape, is of the kind often called pre-Romantic - lush and naturalistic, with tiny brushstrokes and much use of light and shade. It's as near to a photograph as you could get at the time.

Strange to think that a century earlier the journey from top to bottom of this canvas would have taken maybe a day on foot, and two centuries later perhaps 10 minutes by car. History at the crossroads, indeed.

Victoria Neumark


Biography and appraisal of Vernet:


Social history of France:

and http:history.hanover.edutexts young.html

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