Claude Lorrain ( born Claude Gellée dit le Lorrain; traditionally just Claude in English; c. 1600 – 23 November 1682) was a French painter, draughtsman and engraver of the Baroque era. He spent most of his life in Italy, and is admired for his achievements in landscape painting.
The earliest biographies of Claude are found in Joachim von Sandrart’s Teutsche Academie (1675) and Filippo Baldinucci’s Notizie de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua (1682–1728). Both Sandrart and Baldinucci knew the painter personally. Claude’s tombstone gives 1600 as his year of birth, but contemporary sources indicate a later date, circa 1604 or 1605. He was born in the small village of Chamagne, Vosges, then part of the Duchy of Lorraine. He was the third of five sons of Jean Gellée and Anne Padose. According to Baldinucci, Claude’s parents both died when he was twelve years old, and he then lived at Freiburg with an elder brother (Jean Gellée). Jean was an artist and taught Claude the rudiments of his profession. Claude then travelled to Italy, first working for Goffredo Wals in Naples, then joining the workshop of Agostino Tassi in Rome. Sandrart’s account of Claude’s early years, however, is quite different. According to it, Claude did not do well at the village school and was apprenticed to a pastry baker. With a company of fellow cooks and bakers, Claude travelled to Rome and was eventually employed as servant and cook by Tassi, who at some point taught him drawing and painting. While the details of Claude’s pre-1620s life remain unclear, most modern scholars agree that he was apprenticed to Wals around 1620–22, and to Tassi from circa 1622/23 to 1625. Finally, Baldinucci reports that in 1625 Claude undertook a voyage back to Lorraine to study with Claude Deruet, but left his studio comparatively soon, in 1626 or 1627. He returned to Rome and settled in a house in the Via Margutta, near the Spanish Steps and Trinita dei Monti.
On his travels, Claude briefly stayed in Marseilles, Genoa, and Venice, and had the opportunity to study nature in France, Italy, and Bavaria. Sandrart met Claude in late 1620s and reported that by then the artist had a habit of sketching outdoors, particularly at dawn and at dusk, making oil studies on the spot. The first dated painting by Claude, Landscape with Cattle and Peasants (Philadelphia Museum of Art) from 1629, already shows well-developed style and technique. In the next few years his reputation was growing steadily, as evidenced by commissions from the French ambassador in Rome (1633) and the King of Spain (1634–35). Baldinucci reported that a particularly important commission came from Cardinal Bentivoglio, who was impressed by the two landscapes Claude painted for him, and recommended the artist to Pope Urban VIII. Four paintings were made for the Pope in 1635–38. From this point, Claude’s reputation was secured. He went on to fulfill many important commissions, both Italian and international. In 1636 he started cataloguing his works, making tinted outline drawings in six paper books prepared for this purpose of all pictures sent to different countries, and on the back of each drawing he wrote the name of the purchaser. These volumes Claude named the Liber Veritatis.
In 1650 Claude moved to a neighboring house in Via Paolina (today Via del Babuino), where he lived until his death. The artist never married, but adopted an orphan child, Agnese, in 1658; she may have been Claude’s own daughter with a servant of the same name. Sons of Claude’s brothers joined the household in 1662 (Jean, son of Denis Gellée) and around 1680 (Joseph, son of Melchior Gellée). In 1663 Claude, who suffered much from gout, fell seriously ill, his condition becoming so serious that he even drafted a last will, but he managed to recover. He was painting less after 1670, but works completed after that date include important pictures such as Coast View with Perseus and the Origin of Coral (1674), painted for the celebrated arts patron Camillo Massimo, and Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, Claude’s last painting, commissioned by Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna. The artist died in his house on 23 November 1682. He was originally buried in Trinita dei Monti, but his remains were moved in 1840 to San Luigi dei Francesi.
Critical assessment and legacy
In Rome, it was not until the mid-17th century that landscapes were deemed fit for serious painting. Northern Europeans working there, such as Elsheimer and Brill, had made such views pre-eminent in some of their paintings (as well as Da Vinci in his private drawings or Baldassarre Peruzzi in his decorative frescoes of vedute); but not until Annibale Carracci and his pupil Domenichino do we see landscape become the focus of a canvas by a major Italian artist. Even with the latter two, as with Claude, the stated themes of the paintings were mythic or religious. Landscape as a subject was distinctly un-classical and secular. The former quality was not consonant with Renaissance art, which boasted its rivalry with the work of the ancients. The second quality had less public patronage in Counter-Reformation Rome, which prized subjects worthy of “high painting,” typically religious or mythic scenes. Pure landscape, like pure still-life or genre painting, reflected an aesthetic viewpoint regarded as lacking in moral seriousness. Rome, the theological and philosophical center of 17th century Italian art, was not quite ready for such a break with tradition.
In this matter of the importance of landscape, Claude was prescient. Living in a pre-Romantic era, he did not depict those uninhabited panoramas that were to be esteemed in later centuries, such as with Salvatore Rosa. He painted a pastoral world of fields and valleys not distant from castles and towns. If the ocean horizon is represented, it is from the setting of a busy port. Perhaps to feed the public need for paintings with noble themes, his pictures include demigods, heroes and saints, even though his abundant drawings and sketchbooks prove that he was more interested in scenography.
Claude Lorrain was described as kind to his pupils and hard-working; keenly observant, but an unlettered man until his death.
John Constable described Claude as “the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw”, and declared that in Claude’s landscape “all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart”.
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