Claude Gellée (c.1600–1682), known as Claude Lorrain, started life as a pastry cook and despite turning his attentions from pies and patisserie to painting he never lost his love for confection. Although he is revered as the father of the landscape tradition and was hailed by Constable as ‘the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw’ there is precious little that is natural in his paintings. Claude instead mixed his pictorial ingredients — a tree, a ruin, a river — just as he had his butter, flour and eggs and whisked up poetry-frosted views that delighted the delicate palates of his noble patrons.
Although these patrons included Philip IV of Spain and Urban VIII, the collectors with a real Claude-craving were the English milordi of the 18th century who on their grand tours gobbled up every crumb of him they could find. At one point fully two thirds of his paintings were in Britain, and the British Museum still owns 40 per cent of his drawings. Look at the gardens of Blenheim, Stowe or Stourhead or at the paintings of Turner or Richard Wilson and you see the real legacy of Claude — the Frenchman who worked in Italy but whose spiritual home was Britain.
It is perhaps because this country is so well stocked with his works that there seems little need for a new Claude exhibition. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, however, has put together a selection of 140
of his drawings, paintings and etchings to show that he is not perhaps as familiar as he seems.
For an artist whose paintings were so carefully contrived Claude’s starting point was not the studio but the Roman Campagna. His method was to become standard practice but was unusual among southern artists of the early 17th century: he would tramp the countryside, sketchbook in hand, drawing whatever caught his eye — Roman remains, farmhouses, the edge of a wood. According to a contemporary he would ‘go into the fields before dawn and be there until nightfall’. His subjects were chosen not for topographical reasons but so that he could study the fall of light and shade and, more importantly, build up a stock of motifs that he could use in his paintings.
The quality many of these drawings have that is absent from the paintings is that of charm. The simplicity and artlessness of an outcrop of brickwork or the edge of a field is immediate and refreshing and was something that got lost when he translated them into grand schemes on canvas.
Indeed looking at the paintings is like seeing an entirely separate sensibility at work. They conform to a strict formula: trees or buildings frame each side of the composition; some Biblical or Classical action takes place in the mid-foreground; the gaze glides to a middle distance which often has a ship or a ruin in it to snag the eye; and then off to a hazy far distance. The whole is washed and bound in a pearly or roseate hue.
Individually or in the pairs in which they were often painted they are meltingly beautiful — ‘A Seaport’ (1644) or ‘Pastoral Landscape with the Ponte Molle’ (1645), for example — but seen en masse and they can pall. They are not helped by the fact that Claude was an execrable painter of the human figure. He understood the physiology of Nature but not of people. His figures are laughably attenuated and he knew it: as one early biography reported, ‘He was accustomed to say that he sold his landscapes, and made a present of his figures.’ Oddly, the presents weren’t sent back.
Claude’s etchings show the same learning curve as his drawings. The exhibition includes an example of every one of his prints. His first exercises, starting in 1630, are clearly prentice work; confused images (‘The Tempest’) lacking both clarity of line and subtlety of tone. He improved, though, often etching his drawings and culminating in a series depicting the fireworks that celebrated the election of the Habsburg Ferdinand III as ‘King of the Romans’. The 1637 festivities included huge temporary sculptural structures that would open and explode in pyrotechnical displays. As in his early drawings, these etchings forced Claude to work fast, free from the constraints of composing carefully and harmoniously. As a result the prints are remarkably fresh.
By putting the three elements of his work side by side this exhibition shows how this most composite of painters was himself composed and, intriguingly, how the parts are more interesting than the sum.