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Claude Lorrain - Biography and Legacy

French Painter

Claude Lorrain Photo
Movement: The Baroque

Born: 1604-05 - Chamagne, Duchy of Lorraine, Vosges (now France)

Died: November 21 or 23, 1682 - Rome, Papal States

Biography

Childhood

Claude Gellée was born in the small village of Chamagne, in the Vosges region of the Duchy of Lorraine, in north-eastern France. His tombstone is inscribed with the year "1600" to indicate the year of his birth, though historians have suggested that a more likely date is 1604 or 1605. Living for most of his life in Italy, he became known as Claude le Lorrain (Claude of Lorraine), and the name has stuck; English speakers now generally refer to him as Claude Lorrain, or simply as Claude.

He was the third of five sons born to poor parents who passed away when he was twelve. Following a brief stay with his printmaker brother in Freiburg, during which he trained as a pastry chef, Claude travelled to Rome to pursue the same line of work.

Education and Early training

In Rome, Claude began to develop an interest in art. Though facts about his early training remain unclear, one of his biographers, Joachim von Sandrart, suggests that he initially learnt art at Naples from an artist of German origin, Goffredo Wals, during 1620-22. Then, in Rome, Claude spent three years training under Wals's teacher Agostino Tassi, a leading Italian artist of ideal landscapes and illusionistic architectural frescoes. It was under Tassi's tutelage that Claude developed his basic artistic vocabulary, including his understanding of perspective, and his taste for landscapes and coastal scenes.

Leaving Rome for Nancy, the capital of Lorraine, in 1625, Claude is believed to have worked for around a year as an assistant to the neo-classical artist Claude Deruet. According to his second biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, he assisted the senior artist by painting the backgrounds for a series of frescos in a Carmelite church, which has since been destroyed. Claude returned to Rome in 1626 and lived for the next 25 years in a house in Via Margutta, close to the Spanish Steps and the Trinita dei Monti. In 1650, he moved to Via Paolina - now Via del Babuino - where he spent the remainder of his life.

Claude remained somewhat distanced from the city's academic circles, although in 1633 he joined the Accademia di San Luca ("Academy of Saint Luke"), an artists' association under strong Papal influence. We also know that early in his career, Claude travelled to various regions of Italy, France, and Germany, including Marseilles, Genoa, Venice, and Bavaria, to study a range of landscapes first-hand. Von Sandrart reported that Claude would often make rapid sketches and oil paintings, either at dawn or at dusk. His first known painting, Landscape with Cattle and Peasants (1629), now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, already reflects a sophisticated compositional technique, and a highly personal style.

Claude interacted selectively with other artists, but his friendship with fellow Frenchman and landscape painter Nicolas Poussin is relatively well-known. However, very little is known about Claude's personal life, especially as he became more solitary in his forties. Although he never married, he adopted a daughter, Agnese (1653-1713), who lived with him in Rome, and who may have been his biological descendent through a relationship with a house-servant of the same name. Others living with him at various times include a pupil, Giovanni Domenico Desiderii, between 1633 and 1656, and nephews Jean and Joseph from around 1680 onwards.

Although Claude lacked formal education, and was generally presumed to be academically ignorant - an assessment based partly on his writing skills - his paintings demonstrate a substantial knowledge of the Bible, and of Classical literature such as Ovid's Metamorphoses and Virgil's Aeneid.

Mature Period

During the 1630s, Claude gained widespread recognition for his work, and began to receive commissions from monarchs and nobility across Europe. These included the French ambassador in Rome (in 1633), the King of Spain (1634-35), Pope Urban VIII (1635-38), and several cardinals and noblemen from France and Italy. He was soon established as one of Italy's leading painters of ideal landscapes, much like Poussin. A consummate professional, Claude knew the value of his art, and began to charge high prices for his work, which was always produced on commission. At times he employed agents to initiate the sale process for him, only later negotiating directly with his patrons.

By this point, Claude had also begun to include more human figures in his work, an unusual move for a historical landscape painter at this time. These renderings were criticized as "notoriously feeble" by the twentieth-century critic Roger Fry, while other writers have suggested that Claude outsourced his figure-painting to other artists (probably a misconception, as there is no strong supporting evidence for the theory). His biographers differ on this aspect of his work: Baldinucci notes that Claude would joke that he charged for his landscapes and offered the figures for free, but Sandrart is more forgiving, arguing that Claude was continually attempting to improve his skills, as evidenced by the numerous studies of human figures in groups included with his sketches and preparatory drawings.

Having a strong sense of the value of his own work, Claude produced a meticulous record of his production to protect his work from forgery. The book in which this record is recorded, which came to be known as the Liber Veritatis or "Book of Truth", is now stored at the British Museum, London. It contains 195 drawings in more or less in chronological order, meticulous reproductions of almost every painting Claude ever produced. This astounding document also includes details of dates and patrons for each work. Having organized his entire œuvre in this manner, Claude would turn to it as a library of motifs when creating new works, and the Liber Veritatis has proved an equally invaluable document for historians and researchers.

Late Period

Claude's rate of production slowed down significantly during his later years. The works of his last few decades, however, do indicate stylistic developments, being larger in size, and frequently portraying heroic subject-matter in great detail. During the later years of his life, Claude's work also showed a tendency towards a cooler color-palette, which grants his paintings from this period a quality of mystery and solemnity. Another feature that became obvious during this final phase was his depiction of elongated figures. Of one such painting, a caption in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford notes that "[t]he hunters are impossibly elongated - Ascanius, in particular, is absurdly top-heavy". This abrupt shift in style is believed by some critics to have been prompted by the artist's failing eye-sight, though others see this speculation as far-fetched.

Legacy

In his own lifetime, Claude's landscape paintings influenced artists not just in Rome but across the whole of western Europe. In particular, Claude's palette and compositional style had a significant influence on young contemporaries such as Angeluccio and Salvator Rosa; his French admirers included Claude-Joseph Vernet, who was inspired by Claude's sensitive atmospheric effects.

However, the true extent of Claude's historical significance only became clear in the decades and centuries following his death. At a time when landscape painting had not assumed the status it would later be granted, Claude spearheaded its cause, laying the groundwork for the traditions of French and English historical landscape painting which followed across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, his name, like that of his compatriot Poussin, has become synonymous with the very idea of landscape painting as such, and his aesthetic was particularly vital to the Romantic landscape style established in the early-nineteenth century by English painters such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, and even Samuel Palmer. Constable summed up the appeal of Claude's work as follows: "all is lovely - all amiable - all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart".

Such was the influence of Claude's work that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries picturesque artists and connoisseurs would carry around devices known as Claude Glasses, for simplifying and framing natural landscapes. These were small, convex, tinted mirrors, through which vistas could be viewed while facing away from them; the mirrors were thought to bring the same tonal range and formal harmony to the scene as Claude's paintings achieved. The name, however, was purely a homage, as there is no evidence that Claude used such a device.

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