CLAUDE Gellee was born in 1600 or 1604-05 in what was then the independent duchy of Lorraine, to the east of France. The duchy largely had been spared the horrors of the religious wars that had engulfed France in the late 16th century, and so remained a flourishing artistic centre while France itself was devastated and artistically a backwater. Lorraine produced the brilliant printmakers Jacques Callot and Jacques Bellange, and above all the slightly later Georges de la Tour, who lived through the French invasion of the duchy in 1633.
Claude travelled to Rome as a very young man, apparently as a pastry cook, but his talent for painting soon manifested itself and he was taught architectural painting by Agostino Tassi. He learnt from older northern contemporaries such as Paul Bril, for landscape had been considered something of a Flemish specialty in Rome until its adoption by Annibale Carracci and by important followers such as Domenichino, elevating its status and preparing the way for Claude and Nicolas Poussin.
Living among the group of northern painters, Claude was given the name of his country of origin, a common habit in this city of foreigners: Michelangelo Merisi, for example, was known as Caravaggio, from the town of his birth. Henceforth Claude was and always remained Claude Lorrain — or Claudio Lorenese — to his contemporaries in Rome. Relatively little is known about his life, but it seems to have been uneventful, entirely dedicated to painting; he never married but adopted a little girl who was probably his daughter by a maidservant.
He achieved success early: by the 1630s he was painting for the pope and for princely patrons. In 1637, as forgeries of his work had already begun to circulate, he began to keep a register of his paintings: after each one was completed, he would make a detailed drawing of it in what he called the Liber veritatis, the book of truth.
This invaluable resource survives and was first published more than a century ago; it allows us to date almost every work of Claude’s maturity and in general to identify its original commissioner. They were already very prominent and wealthy, and a few years later a contemporary writes to a would-be collector that it is useless even trying to join the queue to obtain a work by the master.
Claude was held in the highest regard until and beyond the end of his long life, in 1682. In the 18th century he was avidly collected by the English — then the richest collectors in the world — to the extent that almost all his important works were at one time or another in various stately homes, and many remain in British collections. The French, strangely, who venerated his friend Poussin, seem only to have taken a distant interest in their greatest landscape painter.
There were perhaps two reasons for this. The first is that Claude’s work is all about nature, and thus he appealed to the English, and contributed to the formation of the proto-romantic English garden aesthetic, with its emphasis on the natural and unconstrained forms of trees. French classical culture, in contrast, valued order and logic above all, and the French formal garden was composed of rows of hedges and topiaries. Nature was beautiful only when decisively tamed. The second reason is related: the French were attached to rules and standards, and according to academic theory landscape was a minor genre: they failed to see that Claude’s achievement had been precisely to make landscape into a great genre in its own right.
It is not too much of a simplification to say that all Western landscape painting can be considered as preceding or following Claude. The tradition starts tentatively in Florence with the application of perspective to the natural world, develops in Rome where it becomes a part of history painting, is enriched by the romantic sensibility of Venice, itself informed by classical bucolic poetry and then by the formal inventiveness of the Flemish, before returning to Rome and achieving its consummation there. The postClaude development begins with the rise of plein-airism in the later 18th century, then Corot, Rousseau, Constable, Turner, the impressionists and so on.
In the modernist period, Poussin fared better than Claude: he was a touchstone for Cezanne and continued to impress the moderns with his abstract compositional rigour. Claude, in contrast, could seem excessively artificial to a generation brought up on the work of the other great artist of the same name, Claude Monet, and unaware of his many brilliant plein-air ink drawings.
But he has never ceased to inspire artists, and although much fundamental research on his oeuvre was carried out from the 1960s to the 80s, in the past few years there has been a particularly notable resurgence of interest in his work.
This began in 2007 with an important exhibition held at the British Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington: The Painter as Draughtsman. Then in 2009 Claude was a central part of Turner and the Masters at the Tate: Turner’s admiration for Claude is well known. (He left two paintings to the National Gallery on condition they be displayed with a pair of pictures by Claude.) Two more monographic exhibitions were running concurrently last year: Claude Lorrain, which began at the Louvre (April to July) and moved to the Teylers Museum in
Landscape with the Judgement of Paris (1633)
Landscape with a Tower (1635-40)