Chamagne, Duchy of Lorraine, Vosges (now France)
Rome, Papal States
Summary of Claude Lorrain
Claude Lorrain made paintings in which the sun, earth, and water seem to reverberate with emotion. His name is inseparable from seventeenth-century landscape painting, his works characterized by a Baroque classicism which is especially evident in his depiction of antique architecture, and his emphasis on dramatic contrasts of light and shade. More often than not, Claude's works were paeans to the beauty of nature rather than portrayals of grand human virtues - as was more common for painters of his style and generation - but they were nonetheless generally representations of historical or mythical scenes. At a time when landscape painting was still far from being considered a significant genre, he thus laid the foundations for the historical landscape tradition that would come to dominate French and English painting for at least 150 years.
- Claude Lorrain infused the tradition of idealized landscape painting, learned from predecessors and contemporaries such as Annibale Carracci and Nicolas Poussin, with an unprecedented empirical accuracy. He spearheaded a new method of landscape painting, working outdoors from detailed observation, and blending classical idealism with naturalistic detail to produce work almost more beautiful than nature itself.
- Claude's depiction of ancient ruins in his paintings has a double-impact, at once reminding us of the passage of time and of the endurance of the structures, thus recalling the medieval concept of memento mori (a living reminder of death). A powerful embrace of the ephemeral and the eternal is at work in these paintings.
- As much as Claude expressed his angst about the passage of time and the temporal nature of man-made things, he was nonetheless one of the first artists to understand this historical significance of his work, and strove to preserve its history through an orderly documentation of his oeuvre in the Liber Veritatis ('Book of Truth').
- Claude not only made pioneering advancements in the portrayal of natural light-source, but was also one of the first artists to pay close attention to sunrises and sunsets in his work. The iconic seascapes in which he explored these effects were inspirational for nineteenth-century English landscape painters such as J.M.W. Turner.
Biography of Claude Lorrain
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.
Important Art by Claude Lorrain
In spite of its nominally realistic subject, Harbor Scene at Sunset is a pure work of the imagination. Huge ships approaching the shore appear almost as hallucinatory silhouettes against the waning sun (though the one to the left seems weighty enough, as it is hauled to anchor). To the right, a further group of ships is dotted amongst lighthouse towers aligned with ancient gateways; the monumental structure in the right foreground is based on the Arcus Argentarium ("Arch of the Silversmiths") constructed in the third century AD at San Giorgio in Velabro, Rome. In front of it, men load and unload the boats, while another sleeps on a pile of cargo, a pair of young lovers skipping past. Illuminating the whole scene, with its majestic swaths of sea and sky, is the finely gradated light of the setting sun.
This work is exemplary of a new form of imagery developed by Claude in his early maturity, involving idealized harbor scenes populated with architectural features adapted from ancient and contemporary buildings. Claude's harbor paintings are also unique in their pioneering use of sunlight as the only depicted source of illumination. Though experiments with strong contrasts of light and shade were exemplary of the seventeenth-century Baroque tradition, Claude's unique contribution was to place the horizon line so low that the sky and sun seem to pervade the entire scene, dwarfing human figures and creating what the art historian Sergei Daniel calls "stately pageants staged by nature". Claude began creating his seaport scenes in the 1630s, and this work represents an evolved version of the style, with darker ultramarine tones and a greater overall warmth of color. Figures also assume a stronger sense of solidity and corporeality in Claude's harbor-scenes of the 1640s.
Works such as Harbor Scene at Sunset have generated much critical debate. While generally considered to be peaceful, uncomplicated images appealing to bourgeois taste, upon inspection an alternative interpretation of their atmospheric energy emerges. The art historian Itay Sapir, for example, argues that the binary composition of land and sea, and the depiction of dawn and dusk in these works represents the classical mythological dialectic between the Apollonian and Dionysian, the dichotomy of "the orderly and the chaotic, the civilized and the wild". In any case, historical significance of Claude's harbor-scenes is not in doubt. The nineteenth-century English artist J. M. W. Turner, for example, was profoundly moved by the series, and drew heavily upon Claude's compositional style and use of light in aerial-perspective works such as The Harbor of Dieppe (1826) and Regulus (1828).
The eye of the viewer is perhaps drawn initially to the two figures in the right foreground: a man dressed in red and a woman in blue, deep in animated conversation. The man's extended arm and leg serve as take-off points, gesturing towards the expansive scene unfolding behind him, where grazing cows tread across the meadow-path to a small bridge. On the river below a boat is rowed by two men, while on the field behind a further figure can be made out astride a horse; in the distance, an ancient castle, and mountains stretching away beneath a clouded sky. As in much of Claude's work, the sky itself is a dominant feature, its delicate pink and blue tones offset against the dark of the framing foliage, the whole scene arranged according to the rule of thirds, providing a classical visual balance.
Commissioned by the Swiss military engineer Hans Georg Werdmüller, this painting exemplifies Claude's idealized representations of pastoral life, wherein the natural world becomes a place of refuge from the chaos of urban life. Suitably enough, the human figures populating this idyll are engaged in contemplation or leisure activities rather than the grinding agricultural toil which was the lot of the contemporary rural worker. Art historian E. P. Richardson notes that "the open green space beneath the trees where the cattle graze is a kind of invitation to the spectator to stroll there in his imagination and enjoy the beauty of the evening." The painting is more accurate, however, in its depictions of flora, fauna, and light. Claude was committed to detailed plein-air study, trying "by every means", according to his biographer Joachim von Sandrart, "to penetrate nature, lying in the fields before the break of day and until night in order to learn to represent very exactly the red morning sky, sunrise and sunset and the evening hours." The effects of this painstaking labor are evident in works such as Pastoral Landscape, which is amongst those which have earned Claude his unparalleled position in art history.
Several elements of the painting, as identified by art historian Marcel Röthlisberger, symbolize the passage of time, and can be seen as leitmotifs within Claude's work: "[f]oremost in our mind are his spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the rays of the sun, cloud formations, ripples on the water. We experience suction into the remote distance in terms of space and time - the time a traveler requires to cover the distance. Roads cross the images from one side to the other, but very rarely connect with the nearest foreground; figures move on them, other figures are caught in action [...] Man-made furnishings allude to time: intact and broken bridges, running mills, boats, sumptuous or humble buildings (ancient, medieval, or modern) versus crumbling ruins."
This painting features many of the typical motifs of Claude's landscapes, including rivers, forests, and distant mountains, all laid out in an atmospherically expansive perspective. The depth of the horizon also allows Claude to provide a condensed Biblical geography within the pictorial space, incorporating Mount Lebanon in the distance, the Sea of Galilee to the right, and the Dead Sea and River Jordan to the left. In the foreground, on a summit of Mount Tabor, Christ and his apostles preach to an ardent crowd of disciples, interspersed with more nonchalant groups of sheep. The diminishing size of the figures enhances the illusionistic depth of the canvas.
Biblical themes feature more prominently in Claude's paintings from the 1650s onwards, as he begins to work on a larger scale, and to focus on heroic and historical subject-matter to a greater extent. The sermon depicted here is drawn from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and includes Christ's expositions on Christian ethics through the Beatitudes; he also pronounced the Lord's Prayer to the multitudes for the first time during this speech. The religious theme of the work is complemented by the noble scale of the landscape, characterized by rich and brilliant blues, painted using ultramarine. This was the most expensive and coveted pigment available to painters at the time, made from the precious stone lapis lazuli.
Though Claude is remembered for his landscapes, works such as The Sermon on the Mount indicate the equal significance of history and myth to his oeuvre, an emphasis which was similarly important to his followers. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the landscape would be wholly emptied of human narratives and celebrated entirely on its own terms, by the post-Romantic painters of the Naturalist and Realist schools; though Claude's work very much lays the groundwork for this advance.