Claude Lorrain

Claude Lorrain, Harbor Scene, 1636 The British Museum, London  It is hard to overestimate the historical importance of Claude Lorrain (1604/05–82), whose landscape compositions were a model for the genre for nearly two centuries. Born in a French village, Claude traveled to Italy as a teenager and had established a home in Rome, near the Piazza di Spagna, by 1627. His genius lay in adjusting the balance between history painting and landscape. Claude’s figures—drawn from the Bible, legend and especially the classical past—were kept small. Trees, water and light were no longer part of a decorative backdrop; they were principal players in the pictorial drama. Claude’s compositions are beautifully balanced, both dynamic and serene, and he found inventive ways of integrating background, foreground and middle distance. The Claudian coulisse, a shadowy foreground proscenium, was a widely imitated device. Yet his formulas never turn stale because he was a keen and sensitive observer of nature, often sketching en plein air in the Roman campagna. American audiences now have an unusual opportunity to study Claude’s working methods, thanks to the exhibition “Claude Lorrain—The Painter as Draftsman: Drawings from the British Museum,” which (after a debut at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco) is on view this spring at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The ninety drawings in the exhibition, selected from the BritishMuseum’s approximately 500, are joined by thirteen oil paintings from various museums.

Claude made nature studies for pleasure but also used them to build up a studio repertoire of motifs. The subject of A Study of an Oak Tree (black chalk, pen and brown ink with grey-brown wash, c. 1638) resembles the gnarled, distinctively curved tree on the left of Claude’s classical pastoral oil Landscape with a Goatherd and Goats (1636–37). It’s a lovely painting, if perhaps a little formal for modern tastes. The works on paper, in contrast, are almost all exciting, and the artist gets an amazing spectrum of “colors” from brown wash. Take, for example, Landscape with a Rider and an Idealized View of Tivoli (1642). The dark bridge and rider, silhouetted in the middle distance, provide compositional scaffolding. The light-filled stream beneath draws the eye towards a glorious sunset, with the cupolas of Rome shimmering on the horizon. This is a capriccio, a fanciful view that incorporates recognizable landmarks, here the round Temple of the Sibyl in the luxurious nearby resort town of Tivoli. Claude’s landscapes are furnished with Roman monuments. Richard Rand writes in the excellent catalogue (co-published by the Clark and Yale University Press): “The historical associations this particular ruin conjured in the viewer made it an ideal signifier of Roman antiquity, and thus its appearance even out of context could effectively ‘classicize’ any landscape….” The sun as focal point, low on the horizon and exaggerating contrasts between light and shadow, is one of the artist’s mainstays. In the pen-and-wash Harbor Scene (1636) a burst of pure light centers the composition, flanked by imposing Renaissance buildings, on one side, and tall, delicately rigged ships, on the other, with a dark foreground scrum of dock workers. There is no specific historical subject (see Claude’s 1641 oil Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula), but the scene is alive with mysterious drama, like a stray piece of footage from a magnificent lost silent film. Claude scratches in clouds, sun and wheeling birds with a few deft lines, and his brown-wash shadows have a velvety richness. The sun also dominates Coast View with Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl (1673), as a central core of white heightening. Already sunk below the horizon, it still lingers, edging the underside of the clouds with radiance. The rest of the scene seems enveloped in twilight, because the artist has used gray wash over blue paper to cool down his usual brown ink. This is late drawing, from a period when Claude was enraptured with Virgil’s Aeneid. The setting is more-or-less based on the topography ofCumae, nearNaples, with thegulf ofBaiae and the Isle of Capri in the background. The figures are small but take center stage, with the sunset behind them. The sibyl gestures for Aeneas to follow her, and their stately pantomime in the gathering dusk has poetic grace.  The exhibition continues through April 29, 2007, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South Street, Williamstown, Massachusetts 01267. Telephone (413) 458–2303. On the Web at www.clarkart.edu.

American Arts QuarterlySpring 2007, Volume 24, Number 2