Claude Lorrain: The foreign fields that inspired our greatest landscapes

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An exhibition shows how French painter Claude Lorrain's shimmering scenes of rural life influenced a generation of British painters

Turner worshipped him, Gainsborough argued that there was no need to paint real landscapes when you had him as an inspiration, and Constable declared him quite simply "the most perfect landscape painter the world has ever seen".

Without the 17th century Lorrainese artist, Claude Lorrain, that most quintessentially British of all art genres, the landscape, might never have developed, or certainly never grown in the way it did. Parklands were laid out in imitation of his views of the Italian countryside and, at one time, something like two-thirds of all his paintings were in Britain.

And yet if he is known today in this country, it is mostly as a name rather than as a painter of loved works. The pre-Raphaelites rejected him, the Modernists ignored him and, even now, when his reputation has risen yet again among scholars, to many ordinary art lovers he seems a figure of the past, all those small figures set in idyllic countrysides with their references to mythological history.

In launching a major exhibition of his works, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford aims, as the curator, Dr Jon Whiteley puts it, "to free him from a reputation seen through the eyes of later painters" and restore him as an innovative artist who carved out a place for landscape in a particularly individual way.

They are doing it not just by displaying some of his great paintings, exhibited in pairs as he intended, but by accompanying them with an extensive display of both his drawings and his lesser-known etchings.

The drawings, and the etchings, in particular, prove the point of his individuality. Claude Gellée , his real name, was never a formerly trained artist nor an academic one. Born in poverty in Lorraine, orphaned at the age of 12, he first became interested in art, according to one of his early biographers, when he entered the house of an Italian painter as a pastry cook . It's too good a story to be dismissed, although other accounts say he first developed his interest helping his brother woodcarving. Like his French contemporary and friend Nicolas Poussin, he fell in love with Italy, its ruins, its past and the gentle landscape of the Roman campagna. But, although he went on drawing expeditions with the great Frenchman and remained a near neighbour in Rome, the contrast between the two is instructive. Poussin was cerebral and literary and drew clearly and precisely with the final painting in mind. Claude drew in a notebook with pen, ink and chalk and wash en plein air whatever took his fancy and then elaborated the drawing as a sourcebook for later painterly concepts.

His early works are full of the spontaneity of discovery as he studies an ancient ruin, captures the rhythm of a river or the pattern of a clump of trees. Above all he was fascinated by light and the atmosphere of the time of day. His earliest biographer recalled him, somewhat comically, lying on his back determined to record the precise light of the moment. But that was what captivated him and it shows in all his works. There's a couple of wonderfully fresh studies of trees and shrubbery from 1640 done with such a fluid wash that you can almost feel the moment. Other drawings done with pen and brown ink give the lie to the view that Claude (as was said of Turner) had no way with the figure.

The other point made strongly by the drawings and etchings is just how conscientiously Claude built up his repertory of compositions and details as he developed his reputation and moved up the scale of patrons (Pope Urban VIII was an early admirer). In his day he was known for copying all his paintings into a liber veritas. The aim, he said, was to defeat forgers by producing a precise record of the works he sold. In fact he used it continuously as a source book of ideas, using images from previous paintings and reworking them for later paintings. He did the same with his drawings and his etchings, and the variations and changes he made are fascinating.

The Ashmolean is showing all 40 of his known etchings and they form a fascinating sequence. Claude etched in bursts and produced a number in groups. What comes through is his use of multiple biting of the plate to produce atmosphere. The Cowherd from early on his career is a true masterpiece of poetic mood but so is Departure for the Fields from 1640 and The Herd Returning in Stormy Weather from a decade later.

But if the drawings and etchings give you a closer understanding of just how carefully Claude worked to achieve the extraordinary sense of the idyllic scene which so impressed his contemporaries and later artists, it remains the paintings themselves which can still knock you out. The Ashmolean, which has organised this show together with the Städel Museum of Frankfurt, has assembled a dozen of his greatest masterpieces, four of them arranged in pairs – land and sea, morning and evening, the light from the left and the right. Standing in the middle of the room and looking around you is an overwhelming experience.

Constable called the unique sense of peace and beauty Claude achieved "the calm sunshine of the heart'. But it was Turner who understood him best and who was the most profoundly moved by him (an exhibition called Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is due to be held by the National Gallery in March next year). It is the way he paints the sun and light itself which is so extraordinary. The pair of Pastoral Landscape with the Arch of Titus and Coast Scene with Landing of Aeneas (both from private collections) beggar belief in their capture of light and the way it glows through the trees but then this is also the case with the National Gallery's Landscape with Psyche Outside the Palace of Cupid in which the light is almost white and ghostly, and its A Seaport from 1644, in which the sun itself is pictured in all its glory. Turner was right. It was not the landscape but the sunlight that suffused it which was Claude's greatest contribution to art.

Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865 278000) to 8 January

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015