The painter, draftsman, and printmaker Claude Gellée was born in a village in the Vosges region of northeastern France in the often contested duchy of Lorraine. In Italy, where he spent the greater part of his life, he came to be known as Claude le Lorrain, and for English-language speakers as Claude Lorrain or simply Claude. His biographers, Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688) and Filippo Baldinucci (1625–1697), knew him in Rome but give differing accounts of the beginning of his career. His date of birth may have been as early as 1600, although 1604/5 is generally accepted. One of five sons, he lost his parents when a child and may have lived briefly with an older brother who was a printmaker in Freiburg. According to Sandrart, Claude’s first appearance in Rome was as a pastry cook. There, or in Naples, he apparently studied with the German-born artist Goffredo Wals (born ca. 1590–95, died 1638–40), by whose small-scale views (1997.157) he was influenced, and later, in Rome, he is believed to have entered the studio of the view painter and decorator Agostino Tassi (ca. 1580–1644). Baldinucci states that in 1625 Claude returned to Lorraine to work with Claude Déruet (ca. 1588–1660) (1976.100.6), but late in 1626 he was again in Rome living in via Margutta in the artists’ quarter. Said to have been disciplined, quiet, and good hearted, he never married but lived simply among relatives and friends.
Claude Lorrain arrived in Italy an ill-educated foreign village boy who, with limited formal training, must have been innately gifted. His rather stilted figures show the influence of Déruet, but otherwise his style developed out of and was influenced by the work of members of the Roman community of native-born and foreign artists among whom he settled (Bartholomeus Breenbergh’s Preaching of Saint John the Baptist, although painted in 1634 in Amsterdam after his return from Italy, is a good example [1991.305]). Most importantly, in Italy Claude drew inspiration from his close, constant study of nature and changing effects of light, sketching out of doors in the countryside. Sandrart, quoted by Röthlisberger, explains that the artist “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.” His observation and transcription of light falling on landscape were unique in his time.
Claude emerged as an independent artist in the late 1620s. His earliest dated canvas is a pastoral subject painted in 1629 (Philadelphia Museum) and among his first prints is The Storm, from 1630. His reputation grew steadily and by 1636 he had very important patrons, including Pope Urban VIII and King Philip IV of Spain. About this time, as a record-keeping device, he began a catalogue which took the form of a finished ink-and-wash drawing of each painting, usually with the country to which it was sent and the name of the purchaser on the reverse. He called his volume the Liber Veritatis (British Museum, London) and its contents are of inestimable value for the study of his career. For example, the so-called Ford (28.117), one of the first pictures he recorded, is number eight, intended for a patron in Paris. Most of Claude’s early work is subjectless, in the sense that his contemporaries did not regard peasants dancing or cows fording a stream (37.3.14) as worthy subjects, nor think of landscape as an important independent genre. However, painting and print are remarkable because of the way in which the artist communicates the evanescent qualities of light (few have described light in the print medium as well as he).
In the seventeenth-century, an important work typically illustrated a historical, mythological, or religious narrative, testing the artist’s grasp of the Bible or the literature of antiquity, his knowledge of form and anatomy, and his ability to communicate the movements of the mind. Claude conformed within his own limits, learning Virgil and Ovid and probably responding to requests for specific literary content from his patrons. The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet (55.119) illustrates a narrative from Virgil and was painted for Girolamo Farnese, later Cardinal Farnese, who in 1643 returned to his native Rome after five years as papal nuncio in the Swiss cantons, fighting the spread of Calvinism. Parallels with Farnese’s biography suggest that he chose Virgil’s myth. Here the women of Troy, who had wandered for seven years, set their ships aflame in the hope of settling in Sicily. While smoke billows from the two vessels in the center, torchbearers approach the ship anchored at the water’s edge. The figures are large for Claude, well formed, and expressive.
The artist also prepared finished studies for his paintings in which he deployed a limited palette to achieve astonishing virtuoso effects of color, light, and atmosphere. In Coast View with Perseus and the Origin of Coral (64.253), he freely interpreted a minor episode from the myth of Perseus: the hero, while washing his hands, placed the decapitated head of Medusa beside a river bank and when he returned the head had transformed the reeds or seaweed into coral. At sunrise, or by moonlight, a putto pours water over the hands of the helmeted Perseus, who is accompanied by his winged horse Pegasus, while astonished nymphs dance around the Gorgon’s head. Transparent colored washes contribute to the ephemeral effect. (A second study for the same late painting [1975.1.661] also belongs to the Metropolitan Museum.) Working in a different vein, Claude’s invested his drawing Queen Esther Approaching the Palace of Ahasuerus (1997.156) with an extraordinary grandeur of scale and intent. The Esther sheet is a study, dated 1658, for a huge lost painting of the biblical heroine whose personal bravery saved the Jewish population of her husband’s kingdom from a death sentence.
Because the Museum’s collection does not include any drawings by Claude Lorrain that are direct studies after nature, we are fortunate to own View of La Crescenza (1978.205), a canvas painted with an immediacy and breadth of handling unusual in a finished work. It is unique among Claude’s paintings in that it is an accurate portrait of an existing building, a fortified casale to the north of Ponte Molle, within walking distance of Rome. As natural as the setting seems to be, La Crescenza stands on a high rocky outcropping, rather than, as here, in a dell, and the arrangement of the lush foreground landscape must therefore be to some extent imaginary. Claude made several sketches of La Crescenza from the surrounding countryside and he knew members of the Crescenzi family, but there is no evidence to suggest that one of them commissioned the picture. Instead, quite to the contrary, the Liber Veritatis drawing, number 118, is marked on the reverse “monsgeur di masso.” Perhaps the artist painted it for himself and only later sold it to a client.