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 & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit