Claude Lorrain was one of the most significant of the early European landscape painters and produced most of his paintings whilst living in Italy, having moved there from his birthplace of France.
Lorrain starred in the 17th century and helped to establish landscape painting as a valuable genre, when previously it had not been given the respect that it receives today. Prior to Lorrain, there were not really any significant artists that specialised in the genre of landscape painting, other than, of course, several members of the Dutch Golden Age. The previous centuries of European art had been dominated with portraiture as well as religious themes. This was predominantly due to the prominence of religion within society at this time but also underlines where the wealth lied during this period. Very few of even the most famous names in art were allowed to express their artistic freedom entirely, with most forced to seek financial stability by attracting rich donors who demanded portraits of family members. Claude Lorrain, however, loved to put together the most extraordinary landscape scenes and had little interest in any of the other mainstream genres.
He was taught by landscape artists having moved to Italy after the death of his parents. It would have been easy for him to submit to the norms of the art world and produce history paintings but instead he allowed nature to dominate his scenes. Claude Lorrain never truly mastered figurative art and so any figures that he included in his paintings are small and serve only to connect the artwork to a particular mythological or religious topic. In reality, all of his interest was in the sprawling scene behind them, as well as the touches of architecture that might appear alongside them in the foreground. He built a strong reputation and chose to continue a consistent approach, avoiding experimenting too much from what worked and potentially risk losing some of his well established patrons. He settled in Rome for the latter part of his life but continued to attract supporters from elsewhere, and so can be considered an entirely international artist. He also travelled to different parts of Germany, France and Italy during his lifetime in search of inspiration for his work and a continued education about the world in general.
The style of his landscapes was most influenced by Claude's time in Rome, and the countryside which surrounded the city. He would sit within it from time to time, often drawing and relaxing as he observed his surroundings in intricate detail. Rome also offered a connection to classical times and many elements of this era would also appear within his work, such as literature and also architecture. He seemed to settle upon a proven formula that he would stick with through most of his career, just re-arranging and tweaking elements from one artwork to the next. His patrons would trust him because of this consistency, and soon he was starting to receive commissions from outside Rome, including other regions of the country and also elsewhere across Europe. Today the artist is regarded first and foremost as an integral part of the rise of landscape painting, a crucial contributor to establishing this genre as the equal of portraiture and history painting. He avoided being to revolutionary by including many acceptable themes within his landscapes, such as mythologically inspired content, and this perhaps better prepared Italians for his unique approach at that time. Later on, other artists would then take this genre down many new paths, taking advantage of the achievements that he had made.
Claude Lorrain was born Claude Gellée, and is known as le Lorrain in French, or Claude in English. Many use the longer name of Claude Lorrain in order to make it easier to identify the artist from those who simply have Claude as their first name, such as Monet for example. It was very common for individuals to carry the location of their birth into their name, particularly in France and Italy. This particular artist was born in Chamagne, Duchy of Lorraine, hence the name. The region is now a part of modern-day France, though at the time the European was much more fragmented into smaller kingdoms and Lorrain himself actually achieved most of his success in Italy. He is now regarded as perhaps the most important French landscape painter prior to the Impressionist era in the mid 19th century and is responsible for establishing this genre as a rival to the established methods of history painting and figurative art. His work is spread across Europe in some of the most impressive collections, allowing a large proportion of the population to study some of his large canvases in person.
Life and Career
Claude was born in the very early 17th century, with the actual date estimated at somewhere between 1600-1605. He is known to have moved to Freiburg after the deaths of his parents whilst approaching his early teens. He learnt some artistic techniques from his brother before choosing to move to Italy where he would join workshops in Naples and then Rome. There have been alternative accounts which suggest that Claude was initially a baker within Italy before then making the transition into art. He would serve under a number of landscape painters during this time which perhaps encouraged him to consider the genre as his specialty. As his skills in drawing and painting continued to develop he would also travel to a number of other destinations including Marseilles, Genoa, Venice and Bavaria, where his broader education continued to expand. Claude Lorrain would now start to receive commissions from a variety of high status individuals across Rome in the 1630s. This marked his arrival as an artist of note. He spent the rest of his life settled in Rome, though his commissions were on an international scale, with his reputation now spread far and wide.
Style and Techniques
Artist Claude understood precisely his strengths and weaknesses as an artist. He would use figures within his landscape scenes sparingly for the reason that he could not complete figurative work as well as other aspects of his paintings. He was a master of light, though, and regularly captured sunsets in a manner which had not really been seen much before within European art. His influence then encouraged other artists to do similar, and so it became a more common feature within this genre from there onwards. Claude used a common style through the majority of his career and was not as ambitious as other artists, though had created a brand which was popular with collectors and critically acclaimed. Besides his use of light and perspective within these scenes, the addition of classical architecture was another trademark of his approach, with all manner of different buildings, structures and bridges appearing within his elaborate compositions. Later artists would take these elements and fuse them with their own ideas and techniques, forging new approaches in later centuries, rather than merely copying this skilled master.
Few quotes remain from the artist himself, with many centuries having passed since his paintings lit up the 17th century, but we have found some related quotes from around that period and more recently which are included below. They give a little insight into how others have viewed his achievements and artistic style in the centuries that have passed since, with interest in his work remaining fairly consistent across that period. Most of what we have learnt about the artist has been gleaned from his paintings, rather than any correspondence that has been recovered from his lifetime. There was also large amounts of discussion about his work by European collectors, and these have helped us to learn more about the strong legacy that he left within France, Italy and the UK. As mentioned elsewhere, some of these collectors would eventually allow professional artists to admire some of these important artworks and they in turn would express their own opinions on the style used by Claude within a consistent oeuvre.
But when on shore, & wandering in the sublime forests, surrounded by views more gorgeous than even Claude ever imagined, I enjoy a delight which none but those who have experienced it can understand - If it is to be done, it must be by studying Humboldt.
When the mind of man is in that delightful state of repose, of which Claude's pictures are the image - when he feels that mild and equal sunshine of the soul, which warms and cheers, but neither inflames nor irritates - his heart seems to dialte with happiness, he is disposed to every act of kindness and benevolence, to love and cherish all around him.
[Claude] soars above the servile representation of ordinary nature, and transports his spectators into the regions of poetry and enchantment.
Michael Bryan (1816)
Fine Claudes of any size are always desirable purchases, [particularly those that are] high finished, with a full pencil brush, and sparkling... when they can be had, large or small, they are treasures.
Claude Lorrain's Most Famous Paintings
Lorrain was a consistent painter who produced a body of work which stuck to certain themes throughout. Some of the highlights of his career included the likes of The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba and Seaport at Sunset, with these two artworks also giving a good example of the key elements of his artistic style. There is the mastery of light within both, as well as the use of classical architecture within the foreground of each composition. The Roman Campagna, Sunrise, Worship of the Golden Calf and Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia then continue this theme with different layouts and alternative content inspired by religious and mythological themes. In all, the artist left behind around one hundred paintings that have been positively attributed to his hand, as well as a wealth of drawings and etchings which also mainly focused on the landscape genre. French, Italian and British art historians have taken a key interest in his career and attempted to produce as comprehensive a guide as possible to his achievements, spread across a number of different publications which date back several centuries.
Did Lorrain work in other mediums besides oils?
Claude was a prolific draughtsman, and produced many pen and wash drawings which he carefully documented once his career had taken off. He would also turn these skills to etching as well, which had been a popular medium for many years within Europe and offered artists an opportunity to supplement their income by producing multiple, cheaper copies of their work. His drawings would vary between their levels of completeness, with some serving purely as simply study pieces whilst outdoors, where as others were far more detailed and could stand as independent artworks in their own right. In order to work whilst travelling, Claude would often carry small sketchbooks in which these drawings could be added, then later he would name many of them, add a signature and perhaps a date as well. Some of the drawings would then later be removed from the books and sold or gifted seperately. This offers a startling similarity to the methods of later landscape painters who were inspired by his achievements, such as the likes of Turner for example, plus many members of the English School.
What was Claude Lorrain's Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth)?
Liber Veritatis was a book by Claude Lorrain which contained a large number of pen and wash drawings. The item was reproduced several times and would prove influential to a number of British painters. Claude was a rarity in how accurately he documented his work and this included a number of publications such as this. The artist was concerned about others passing their work off as his, particularly after his death, and so diligently went about detailing his paintings and drawings in a manner which would make this much harder to do. The Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth) was originally a sketchbook but he began to add information about each drawing on the reverse, raising the significance of each piece and allowing historians to better understand where each artwork fitted into his life story. The book features many landscapes, but also other genres, such as a self portrait which is positioned near the front of the book. Some of the drawings found within this book are very similar to completed oil works by Claude which still exist today and may therefore have been study pieces as a means to decide upon a compositional layout in the final piece.
Popular with English Collectors
In the century after his passing most art collections in the UK were entirely closed to the public. There were not the galleries or museums that we enjoy today and artists would have to be well connected in order to access many of these great works. Over time this would change and collectors allowed artists to observe some of European art's best work in person, allowing the British art scene to improve dramatically. Travel became difficult because of constant war and so many artists were limited to domestically-held art. Thankfully, British collectors started to acquire work from France and Italy, including that of Claude, which then widened the scope of education received by local artists. Many marvelled at the achievements of Claude and followed him into landscape painting as a result. It also helped to bring about the watercolour landscape scene in England and France, even though Claude predominantly worked in oils. That period of competition for Claude's work is still apparent today, with a fine selection of the artist's work to be found in the UK, with most of it now having transitioned into public art galleries and museums.
Claude Lorrain's Influence on JMW Turner
The artist would leave a profound impact on British and French art, with many young painters moving into the landscape genre because of the inspiration that they brought him. Most are entirely aware of his influence on Turner, but many others also now saw this genre as a respected and valued form of art in which they could specialise. Turner himself saw many of Claude's paintings in the UK but had also travelled himself to Italy many times and so had seen a good number of his works in person. The British painter would marvel at the use of light, something that he himself would become famed for, and would regularly produce his own copies of Claude's paintings, be it as completed oils or faster, simpler sketches. Claude is perhaps today known as much for those who he inspired as he is for his own work which was breaktaking but also featured some technical drawbacks which have by now been discussed in detail many times. He limited his use of human figures, for example, because of how he struggled to reach the same levels of quality as found in his landscape elements, despite many years of practice in figurative work.
Related Baroque Landscape Painters
Landscape painting was not a significant part of the Baroque era, but the efforts of Claude would help it to become a major theme within later movements. The masters of the Baroque would be names such as Velázquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin and Vermeer. They provided great drama to topics that had previously been covered in the Renaissance, with more extreme uses of lighting and also content which was far more direct. Emotion was therefore key, but Claude's landscapes were very much a niche of the 17th century. He would adapt his landscapes into an idealised version, bringing a majestic look to scenes around Europe, but there were few others working in this genre at that time. The Van Ruisdael family were the most prominent landscape painters within the Dutch Golden Age but came slightly after Claude, though their careers did overlap for a period. Aelbert Cuyp was also highly significant, but in the main most Baroque landscapes were provided alongside other content, such as figurative art, just as had been seen within the Renaissance. It was then into the 18th century when the landscape genre became a dominant force within Europe.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.