The French landscape painter, draftsman, and etcher Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) was regarded as the prince of landscape painters until the days of impressionism in the mid-19th century.
Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin were the most distinguished exponents of the French classical baroque style, though fulfilling antithetically expressive ends within the theoretical precepts established by the French for painters from the middle of the 17th century. Whereas Poussin was interested in rendering the archeologically precise and imposing monumentality of imperial Rome objectively, Lorrain preferred to depict the romantic deserted ruins in a rolling countryside. To Lorrain's admirers, his paintings remain the visual counterpart of the profound sentiment of the beauty of the natural world found in the Eclogues and Georgics of the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Lorrain, however, largely deemphasized the role of man in nature in order to enhance the presence and play of cosmic forces, though classical tradition precluded his unbalancing the two to any pronounced degree. If Poussin's art is the last phase of rational formalism in the history of landscape painting, Lorrain's can be considered the first in the long development of autonomous pictorialism leading to the 19th-century romantics and impressionists. A synthesis of the divergent artistic messages of Poussin the scholar and Lorrain the poet might be said to have been reached in the landscape art of Paul Cézanne, where the poetic content of nature is unified within the formal elements of classical composition.
Claude Lorrain was born Claude Gellée in the village of Chamagne near Nancy. Orphaned at about the age of 12, he moved to Freiburg im Breisgau to live with his brother, who apparently was equipped to teach him engraving. In 1613 he set off with another relative, a dealer in lace, for Rome, where, because of the talent common to many Lorrainers, he found employment as a pastry cook in the house of the landscape painter Agostino Tassi. The position of apprentice soon replaced that of cook, the master teaching the young boy the rudiments of painting.
About 1623 Lorrain went to Naples, where he studied for a short time with the Flemish artist Goffredo Wals. The impression of the Gulf of Naples from Sorrento to Pozzuoli and the islands of Capri and Ischia was overwhelming and indelibly imprinted upon his memory, for reminiscences of these awesome views of water, earth, sky, and light recurred in his art until the end of his life. In 1625 he returned to Nancy, where he briefly assisted Claude Deruet by executing the architectural backgrounds to the latter's ceiling paintings for the Carmelite church (now destroyed). He then made his way back to Rome—sketching all the way. No record reveals Lorrain's ever leaving Rome again, and he lived out his life quietly and industriously as a respected member of the colony of foreign artists, though some scholars believe the vividness of the Neapolitan recollections in his paintings implies the necessity of his having returned to Naples and its environs.
After the 1630s his reputation as a landscape painter was firmly established. By the 1640s he counted among his clients the French ambassador Philippe de Béthune, cardinals Bentivoglio and Crescenzio, and Pope Urban VIII. As a clue to the degree of his early success, the French artist Sébastien Bourdon in 1634 imitated Lorrain's style and passed the work off as an original. Because copyists and imitators of his style abounded, he created, to offset this plagiarizing tendency by contemporaries, a catalog of 200 drawings of his original compositions and entitled it Liber veritatis.
This visual record, as well as all other authenticated works by the artist, reveals relatively little change in Lorrain's style from his early to his late period. The structural formula of composition, transmitted through Tassi, his first teacher, from such late mannerist artists as Paul Brill and Adam Elsheimer, who utilized stage-set structural devices, remains constant in him. He sets his scenes consistently as spatial areas receding from picture plane to infinity. The picture plane is established by placing a mass of dark greenish-brown foliage on both sides of the composition, with usually a tall, feathery tree element on one side, as in The Mill (1631). When human activity does occur, as in The Mill, the action takes place quite animatedly in the front area of the middle distance, set upon or against a barge landing, bridge, or farmhouse. This central focus then is systematically reduced by subtly placed flanking motifs, like stage flats, creating wings, or coulisses, which carry the eye to the far distance of mountains, rivers, or the rolling Roman campagna, as in Apollo Guarding the Herds of Admetus (1654).
The real subject of Lorrain's work is not, however, the forms of nature or the activities of men, but rather the animating power of light, emanating in varied intensities, depending upon the time of day chosen for the theme, playing upon the material realm and transforming it into a peculiar mood impression.
Chiaroscuro, or the play of patterns of dark and light contrasts, is the method Lorrain generally uses in drawing and painting. Modulation plays down the violence of blindingly dramatic sun and moon effects of such a mannerist precursor as Elsheimer. His drawings, though great in variety, uniformly reveal a preoccupation with values of light and dark rather than with color. As with his paintings, the magic of mood, the veiling of earth and man in an infinite variety of gently controlled radiation and reflection of light which issues from a known but unobtrusive source, is the subject.
Lorrain's influence was both catalytic and mediating of divergent national talents. In his art he melded the northern emotive response to nature, such as that found in the works of the German Albrecht Altdorfer and the Fleming Joachim Patinir, with the more palpable control of the southern temperament. In this sense his contribution to art is more universal than that of his habitually more formalistic contemporary and countryman Poussin.
Further Reading on Claude Lorrain
A scholarly and interesting summary in English of all previous studies of Claude is Marcel Röthlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Drawings (2 vols., 1968). Röthlisberger's Claude Lorrain: The Paintings (2 vols., 1961) is also valuable. Roger Fry's essay on Claude in his Vision and Design (1920) is rich in esthetic and philosophical wisdom and refutes the literary attacks on the artist in John Ruskin's Modern Painters (5 vols., 1846-1860). See also Martin Davies's detailed discussion of the Liber veritatis in French School (1946-1950; 2d ed. 1957), published by the National Gallery in London. There is a discussion of Claude and the general historical period in Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1953).
Additional Biography Sources
Russell, H. Diane (Helen Diane), Claude Lorrain, 1600-1682, Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1982.