Claude Gellée is considered one of the most famous artists of seventeenth-century France. He was born in the duchy of Lorraine in 1600, and is usually known as Claude Lorrain. He was a major influence on the work of landscape artists such as John Webber in the eighteenth century.
According to some accounts, he was a pastry cook by trade, and when he was twenty went to Rome to work as a cook in the painter Agostino Tassi’s household. Tassi led a team of artists whom we might think of as ‘theme decorators’. They specialised in painting large-scale landscapes onto the plaster walls inside the palaces of wealthy families. The scenes were designed to seem so real that they fooled the eye.
Lorrain obviously learnt a great deal from his master’s work, but he was even more influenced by the Flemish artist who taught Tassi – Paul Bril. Bril had worked in Rome since the 1570s and was noted for his skill in painting landscapes. Lorrain began arranging his landscapes along the lines of Bril’s compositions. There would be a busy foreground, some picturesque feature in the middle ground, such as a large tree or a building like a mill, and a range of hills in the background.
Lorrain went back to France in 1625 and became an artist’s assistant in a studio in Nancy, Lorraine, but in 1627 he returned to Rome where he lived and worked as a painter for the rest of his long life. By the late 1630s, he had become very well known, and made a good living painting commissions for wealthy clients.
He drew inspiration for his landscapes from the shapes and features of the countryside around Rome. But his paintings were all imaginary compositions. He would include figures in them, but usually to bring features of the landscape into focus, or to intensify the mood of the picture. The paintings would often illustrate scenes from the Bible (such as his Landscape with the Adoration of the Golden Calf) or classical literature such as Virgil’s Aeneid. Lorrain chose these subjects carefully to suit both the patron who commissioned the work, and the mood he wanted to create in the picture.
His paintings seem to encompass vast amounts of space. With their receding planes, they often give the illusion of stretching out beyond the bounds of the canvas. The style of painting is called ideal, because it represents landscape according to the painter’s notion of its ideal appearance. One of Lorrain’s ideals was that the scene should be bathed in a glow of golden light. This style had a great influence on European painters of landscape for the next hundred years.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).