According to his biographer, Claude Gellée received little education as a youth but was instead trained as a pastry cook. Luckily, fate had more in store for this young peasant from Lorraine. He would end up in Rome where he became a painter known as Claude ‘le Lorrain’. He studied the art of Northern European artists working in Italy and Roman landscape painters but his greatest influence was the Italian campagna, the bucolic and historic countryside around Rome, where he was one of the first artists to paint oil studies outdoors. His keen powers of observation made him a superlative landscape painter but topographic accuracy was not Claude’s aim. His specialty was ‘pastorals,’ bucolic landscapes inspired by those of Titian and Giorgione, which were more poetic evocations of the ideal of nature. Tinged with nostalgic echoes of antiquity, his idyllic landscapes were intended to surpass the real thing in beauty, harmony, and refinement.
The genre was governed by classical concepts and Claude’s landscapes, such as this one, were often visual narratives, telling a mythological or historic tale. This image features Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, disembarking at Tarsus where she has come to meet Mark Anthony and seduce him. Wearing a blue dress and a gold crown she and her attendants have just arrived on their magnificent ships and approach Mark Anthony on the quay. Nothing is historically accurate – the costumes, ships and architecture are more 17th-century than 1st century – but it doesn’t matter.
For Claude, figures were unimportant; in fact he did not usually draw his own figures but often had assistants or colleagues add them. People were simply props for Claude’s magnificent setting. This scene is illuminated with his characteristic hazy, luminous light, which emanates from the painting so that architecture and figures appear almost as silhouettes. Strong verticals like the ships, trees and classical buildings are balanced by the open expanse of sea and sky. The large galleon with elaborate rigging is depicted with impeccable detail, as is the architecture.
The scene is idyllic, though the composition and details hint at impending danger – note the distant clouds, the hint of whitecaps. But for the moment all is as it should be, allowing for the full appreciation of the artist’s carefully composed landscape and glowing light. Claude liked complicated images that nevertheless achieve a tranquil balance. He employed thin, semi-transparent layers of oil paint to produce extraordinary luminosity, but every element was subordinated to the poetic feeling of the whole.
This lyrical aesthetic clearly hit a chord with his contemporaries and Claude rapidly became the most renowned landscapist in Italy. His works were so sought after by collectors that a major forgery business developed in Rome, producing works in Claude’s distinctive style. In an attempt to maintain both his market and his legacy, Claude responded by creating a Liber veritatis (Book of Truth, today in the British Museum), in which he recorded each work he sold, detailing its subject, patron and even its price. This work is recorded in the Liber veritatis as being (together with another work, David Crowned by Samuel) for Cardinal Angelo Giori, a confidant of Pope Urban VIII. Both were later purchased by Louis XIV in 1682 and remain in the Louvre’s collections today.
Claude’s popularity continued long after his death. Considered by many as one of the greatest of all landscape painters, he remained a perennial favourite of Romantics, including 18th and 19th century English landscape painters and Goethe who wrote: ‘Claude Lorrain knew the real world by heart, down to its minute details. He used it as a means of expressing the harmonious universe of his soul’.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1642 Rembrandt: The Night Watch, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
1643 George de La Tour: The Penitent Magdalen, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art