CLAUDE de Lorrain: the Enchanted Landscape. Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.

Oxford until 8th January 2012.

A review by Julia Gasper

Of course people painted mountains and hills, trees and lakes, clouds and horizons for centuries before Claude Gellée (1604-1682) but they painted them as the background to other, more important things: usually religious or mythological subjects. In the paintings of Claude, the religious or mythological stories are still there, but the emphasis has changed. The landscape is what matters, and the figures often seem dwarfed by their surroundings, secondary details in a vast, open expanse of ideal landscape inspired by his study of the countryside around Rome. His name has become synonymous with delicate sunset effects, and romantic ruins. This exhibition brings together thirteen of his major paintings from collections all over the world, as well as from the National Gallery in London and the Ashmolean itself, so that we can compare and appreciate them more keenly. Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid is one of the most famous paintings in the National Gallery. The poet Keats called it The Enchanted Castle, and loved its fairy-tale atmosphere, created by the misty soft twilight out of which looms the mysterious castle, a dream-like amalgam of Renaissance palace with Romanesque fortress, overlooking a lake in a woodland glade. Psyche herself, a surprisingly robust figure, sits pensive on a rock brooding on her expulsion from the magical realm. The balustrade along the top of the castle is silhouetted delicately against the silvery sky. A similar mysterious castle appears in the Coastal Scene with the Landing of Aeneas. It seems to be growing out of the rocks like the tall oaks surrounding it. A galleon is silhouetted dramatically against the setting sun. Trees in Claude’s paintings are immense, colossal, towering far above the human figures and even taller than the grand colonnaded buildings he liked to depict. They dominate the composition and it is clear that in his epoch, huge trees were regarded with veneration. (A pity that the designers of Bonn Square here in Oxford did not take the same view). In Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Silvia, verdant groves, translucent in the dawn light, rise almost to touch the clouds. A round building on the hill at the left has some resemblance to the Radcliffe Camera. Abraham Expelling Hagar and Ishmael is another dawn scene, where Abraham (surprisingly housed in a Roman villa, not a tent) casts out his mistress and child. The curious cloud formation suggests an angel – or even God – hovering in the sky above to protect her. In Landscape with Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, the people are even more noticeably dwarfed and almost lost in the sylvan landscape. In Landscape with a Country Dance, peasants frolic at evening on the edge of woodland, to the music of tabors, pipes and a tambourine, and nobody shoos away the cattle. In Landscape with a Goatherd, the herdsman, seated at the foot of vast elms, pipes to his goats at evening, beside a lake on whose far shore broods a lonely ruined watch-tower. Claude loved to paint the ruins of classical Rome that were all around him. The pure lines of the architecture provided a perfect subject for the study of light. In A Pastoral Landscape with the Ponte Molle, the graceful arches of the bridge span the calm, silvery river on the right, while on the left an immense oak tree dominates, more powerful even than the fortified tower behind it. In some cases he decided that the ruins deserved a better setting, and he transported them into an imaginary landscape more worthy of them. In A Pastoral Landscape with the Arch of Titus, (a painting that inspired Turner) the famous Roman triumphal arch is placed overlooking a stream so that its bass relief can be seen reflected in the water below. The Colosseum acquires a romantic tinge when covered in ivy and placed on a green hillside where cattle placidly graze. In The Judgement of Paris, a picturesque, ruined temple nestles in a grove on a rocky promontory. It is the sort of view that inspired countless follies and temples in the parks of English stately homes. The shepherd, Paris, sits below a vast canopy of trees surveying the goddesses who have to compete in beauty with the rosy sky and the pale blue hills. Claude also excelled in the depiction of sea and ships. It is hard to look at A Seaport (1644) a painting of Renaissance palaces with the sea lapping on their doorsteps, without thinking of Venice. The view may be imaginary, but the lighthouse in the middle distance forcibly reminds me of the Venetian lion on its column at San Marco. The blazing sunset is quintessential Claude. In A Coast View, (1633) he depicted a working dock with stooping figures loading a vessel for freight (and a man having a slash against the wall on the right). The Marquis d’Argens claimed that Claude actually got other painters to help him with the human figures as he was not very good at them. Actually the figures in canvases like this are full of life and interest, but it is obvious that Claude’s heart was in the inspirational depiction of Nature. The ancient poets had talked about an idyllic land of Arcadia. Claude opened people’s eyes to see the Arcadia all around them.

Julia Gasper.


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