OUT­SIDE VI­SION

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

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)

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