This small and delicate painting depicts an episode from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), first published in 1581. The pagan warrior Erminia, in love with the Christian Tancred, writes his name on a tree in the forest as a sign of her love for him. This was a common subject in seventeenth-century Italian paintings and demonstrates the fortune of Tasso’s poem at the time.
The picture, frequently described as "unfinished," is of unusual interest and importance for our understanding of the transformations in landscape painting in early seventeenth-century Rome—a period in which a renewed attention to the study of nature and an interest in the effects of light at various times of day intersected with the Venetian tradition of an idealized pastoral landscape. Northern painters played a conspicuous role in this story: the Fleming Paul Bril (1554–1626), who enjoyed enormous prestige in Rome, where he worked from 1583 on; the German Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), whose exquisite, small-scale landscapes were enormously influential; and Goffredo Wals (1595–1638; see 1997.157), who for a time was an assistant to the Italian Agostino Tassi (1578–1644), an artist prominent both as an expert in architectural perspective (quadratura) and in landscape painting and widely employed providing frescoed landscape friezes in the palaces of Rome. Claude Lorrain worked with both Tassi and Wals, and this panel has been ascribed alternatively to both Tassi and Claude (see References).
The picture is on a poplar panel one inch thick. The composition was laid in very summarily with a brush drawing in ink. The underdrawing can be seen in places through the paint but is only modestly enhanced by infrared reflectography since it is evidently in bistre or iron gall (see Additional Images, figs. 1–4). The technique is precisely analogous to what is found in the informal nature studies of Tassi and Claude: quick, calligraphic, with very little modeling. The outline of the distant mountain is easily detected, as are a few scalloped lines for the clouds, loops for the backs of the sheep; long lines for the trees—where there is some occasional curved hatching to indicate modelling (visible especially in the trunk of the tree to the far right); and indications for the foliage (best seen above the horizon at the far right). Analogies for the draftsmanship may be found in the graphic output of both Tassi and Claude. However, where those artists—and particularly Claude—would have then proceeded with ink washes to describe the play of light over the features of the landscape, here color was laid on in broadly brushed bands. At the right, the green was brushed in a vertical direction with almost no modeling. Elsewhere, as in the middle ground, the brushstrokes are horizontal and describe a succession of planes. The figure of Erminia was painted over the landscape—as though an interpolation to give what was a pure landscape view a classical subject. The figure is notable both for the summary treatment and the beautiful suggestion of light playing over the back of her neck and illuminating her arm. By contrast, the foliage of the trees is more densely painted and may properly be described as "finished." Everything else remains in a state that is perhaps best described as informal. There is, in other words, no reason to think that it was the artist’s intention to bring the work to a higher degree of finish, and to describe it as "unfinished"—signifying "incomplete"—is in this sense a misnomer.
The rapid, summary execution brings to mind two famous remarks regarding Claude’s study of nature. The first occurs in Joachim Sandrart’s biography (Der Teutschen Academie zweyter Theil, 1675) in which he recounts how Claude "tried by every means to penetrate nature, lying in the fields before the break of day and until night in order to learn to represent very exactly the red morning-sky, sunrise and sunset and the evening hours. When he had well contemplated one or the other in the fields, he immediately prepared his colours accordingly, returned home and applied them to the work he had in mind with much greater naturalness than anyone had ever done." Later, after meeting Sandrart, Claude took up "painting from life in the field. But while I was only looking for good rocks, trunks, trees, cascades, buildings, and ruins which were great and suited me as a fillers for history paintings, he on the other hand only painted, on a small scale, the view from the middle to the greatest distance, fading away towards the horizon and the sky, a type in which he was a master . . . ." (translation: Marcel Röthlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, New Haven, 1961, vol. 1, p. 48). The other remark was made on the occasion of a visit in August of 1647 by André Félibien, who records in his journal that "I saw Claude Lorrain and his small landscapes painted in tempera (détrempe) on wood. First it is necessary to put on a very delicate layer of glue (colle de gand), then paint, the colors having been diluted in the glue; or, alternatively, take an egg—the yoke and white—with a bit of vinegar and the same amount of water and the sap from the branches of a fig tree, and beat them together, and use this instead of the glue, gum Arabic (la gomme) not being good [for this purpose] because everything will curdle" (see Y. Delaporte, "André Félibien en italie," Gazette des beaux-arts 51 [April 1958], pp. 205–6; discussed in Rand 2011, p. 47). It was Félibien’s remark, evidently inspired by his curiosity at an unusual technique, that led Röthlisberger (1983) to date the picture to 1647, though on stylistic grounds a dating in the 1630s seems more likely. Cavazzini (2008), who believes the picture to be by Tassi, dates it to ca. 1632, and this seems more or less convincing regardless of which of the two artists is held responsible. The technique would appear to be one Claude adapted from painting on paper. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was in the years around 1630 that Sandrart and Claude met and that Claude adopted his practice of painting outside. Röthlisberger has noted that Claude’s post mortem inventory lists eight small pictures on panel; the only other work on panel ascribed to him is a Flight into Egypt in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.
The relevance of these accounts is of great interest for our evaluation of this landscape as well as, obviously, for the history of plein air landscape painting. The picture might, indeed, be understood as the direct product of Claude’s early practice of studying nature and then rushing back to his studio to record his impressions. Whether Tassi also did this is not known. For a drawing related in subject and penmanship in the Harvard Art Museums (1979.231) that comes from an album of Tassi’s and contains both autograph and workshop material, see Patrizia Cavazzini, "Agostino Tassi Reassessed: A Newly Discovered Album of Drawings," Paragone 51 (July 2000), p. 20; also see Additional Images, fig. 5).
The story of Erminia is recounted in Jerusalem Delivered, Torquato Tasso's epic poem of the First Crusade published in 1581 (VII, xix). Having fallen in love with the Christian knight Tancredi and having fled to the forest after being attached by soldiers, Princess Erminia takes refuge with shepherds. There, "when underneath the greenwood shade / Her flocks lay hid from Phoebus’ scorching rays, / Unto her knight she songs and sonnets made, / And them engraved in bark of beech and bays . . . . " (trans. Edward Fairfax, London, 1600). In the picture she is shown carving on the trunk of a tree. Interestingly, above her—out of reach—are two letters that the artist drew in ink: apparently "I N".
[Keith Christiansen 2014]
Robert L. Manning, New York (bought from a New York art dealer; by 1967–at least 1977); Eugene V. Thaw, New York (by 1983)
New York. Finch College Museum of Art. "Vouet to Rigaud: French Masters of the Seventeenth Century," April 20–June 18, 1967, no. 25 (as "Landscape with Erminia as a Shepherdess Carving the Name of Tancredi in the Bark of a Tree," by Claude, lent by the Manning collection).
Haus der Kunst München. "Im Licht von Claude Lorrain: Landschaftsmalerei aus drei Jahrhunderten," March 12–May 29, 1983, no. 17 (as "Landschaft mit Herminia," lent by Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Victor Thaw, New York).
Tokyo. National Museum of Western Art. "Claude Lorrain and the Ideal Landscape," September 15–December 6, 1998, no. 47 (lent by a private collection).
Vouet to Rigaud: French Masters of the Seventeenth Century. Exh. cat., Finch College Museum of Art. New York, 1967, unpaginated, no. 25, ill., attributes it to Claude and identifies the subject as Erminia; lists seals, labels, and inscriptions appearing on the back; notes that since traces of drawing are visible, the work is probably either unfinished or is a sketch or a study for a larger composition.
Marcel Röthlisberger. "De Bril à Claude: tableaux inédits." Revue de l'art no. 5 (1969), pp. 59–60, fig. 1 (color), erroneously as on canvas; believes the subject is Œnone rather than Erminia; dates it close to Claude's "Paris and Œnone at the foot of a Tree" (Musée du Louvre, Paris) of 1648.
Doretta Cecchi inL'opera completa di Claude Lorrain. Milan, 1975, p. 106, no. 159, ill., as "Paesaggio con Enone," erroneously as tempera on wood; dates it 1645 or later; notes the influence of Agostino Tassi (1578–1644).
Teresa Pugliatti. Agostino Tassi: tra conformismo e libertà. Rome, 1977, pp. 123–28, fig. 171, attributes it to Agostino Tassi and identifies the subject as Erminia and the shepherds, relating it to two works by Tassi of that subject: a drawing in the Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe, Uffizi, Florence, and a fresco in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Rome; dates it 1632–35.
Marco Chiarini. "Agostino Tassi: Some New Attributions." Burlington Magazine 121 (October 1979), p. 617, attributes it to Tassi, relating it to the drawing in the Uffizi and to another drawing by Tassi of "Diana Hunting" (fig. 18; Steiner collection, Cambridge, Mass.).
Marcel Röthlisberger. Claude Lorrain: The Paintings. reissue [published 1961]. New York, 1979, vol. 1, unpaginated section preceding p. 1, includes it among "Further Paintings by Claude Discovered after 1961" as "Landscape with Oenone," about 1645.
Marcel Roethlisberger. Im Licht von Claude Lorrain: Landschaftsmalerei aus drei Jahrhunderten. Exh. cat., Haus der Kunst München. Munich, 1983, pp. 80–81, no. 17, ill., retains his attribution to Claude, but accepts the identification of the subject as Erminia.
Marcel Roethlisberg[er]. "New Works by Tassi, Claude, and Desiderii." Apollo, n.s., 120 (August 1984), p. 95.
Patrizia Cavazzini. Palazzo Lancellotti ai Coronari: cantiere di Agostino Tassi. Rome, 1998, pp. 104, 140, supports the attribution to Tassi.
Patrizia Cavazzini inAgostino Tassi (1578–1644): un paesaggista tra immaginario e realtà. Ed. Patrizia Cavazzini. Exh. cat., Palazzo di Venezia. Rome, 2008, pp. 66, 93 n. 160, fig. 74.
Richard Rand. "'Landscape with Erminia' and Claude's Paintings from Nature." Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection. Ed. Jennifer Tonkovich. New York, 2011, pp. 45–50, 56, 61 nn. 2, 6, p. 62 nn. 10–11, fig. 36 (color), discusses the anomalies of the picture within Claude's oeuvre, and its possible function; believes that it might be unfinished, but does not see it as a study for a larger work or as an open-air sketch made in front of the motif.
Esther Bell. "Catalogue Raisonné of the Thaw Collection." Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection. Ed. Jennifer Tonkovich. New York, 2011, p. 133, no. 95, ill. (color), as by Claude.
Margret Stuffmann inCamille Corot: Natur und Traum. Exh. cat., Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe. Heidelberg, 2012, pp. 202–3 n. 16, fig. 6.
An early label with the name Claude and the number 38 is on the back of the picture. There are also an unidentified collector's seal and an early inventory number: 951. The exhibition catalogue Vouet to Rigaud, New York, 1967, mentions a second early inventory number—20651—which is no longer visible (see Additional Images).