Lorrain, Claude: Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters (1676)

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About the artist

You may have picked up the idea that a good work of art is unalterable. It is put together so well that nothing can be changed, nothing added, nothing taken away, without doing it harm. It is the test and the mark of a well-made composition that every alteration will be for the worse.

The philosopher Aristotle laid down this rule. A poem should have its "different parts arranged so that the whole work is damaged by the transposition - and destroyed by the removal - of any one of them". Later critics have applied the rule to all the arts. The ideal work, they say, is one where everything is essential and everything clicks. It has no redundancy, no looseness. It has found its perfect, unalterable form.

It's a debatable doctrine. Strict economy and total integration are certainly artistic virtues, but they're not the only ones. If you're reading Dickens or Walt Whitman, then asking whether everything in the work is absolutely necessary is not necessarily the right attitude. In art, sturdy capaciousness and expansive elaboration may also be worthwhile things.

But there is another exception to Aristotle's principle. Sometimes pointed redundancy in itself can be a benefit. There's an element in the work that is superfluous. It's not just inessential, it's positively a foreign body. And just for that reason, strangely, it's the thing that crowns the work. Take the extraneous figures in Claude Lorrain's Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters. There is the landscape. It is a dreamland, an idealised vision of the Roman Campagna. It shows a view of sheep-filled pasture, wooded hill and hill town, distant plain and bay and mountains. The receding layers of scenery mistily fuse, and gradually fade towards a horizon where ground and sky are lost in the morning sunlight.

And then there are the people. They stick out. They look funny. Four stiff little figures, strangely elongated, busy with their little story. It is a Bible story. Jacob is working as a shepherd to earn one of Laban's daughters as his wife. That fits in with the field of grazing sheep. The problem is that in most ways the figures don't fit. Lovers of Claude's landscapes have often wished his storytelling figures away. Surely they only interrupt the lovely view, snag the wandering eye in irrelevant detail, and give the scene a fixed and ludicrous focus. Claude himself recog-nised a problem. According to an early biographer, "he used to say that he sold the landscapes, and gave away the figures".

Exactly: they are gratuitous, and they show it. They're painted incongruously. The landscape is rendered in soft subtleties of luminosity and shade. The figures are abruptly highlighted, detached, like sharp bright badges pinned on to the image.

They have an awkward scale. They aren't small enough to merge in the background. They stand out. They're centre-stage, demanding attention. You can see that some business is going on among them. Yet they aren't big or outgoing enough to dominate the scene. They have their story, but they keep it to themselves. They're neither protagonists nor supernumeraries. They're both uninteresting and unignorable.

And compositionally they don't belong. There's no connection between the figures and the forms of the landscape. They're like an insert, a bit of collage, an isolated episode added into this setting. How would it be if they were just taken away?

Try to imagine that. It isn't so difficult. The group of figures is compact and separate. Excising them from the patch of grass and bushes they occupy wouldn't be a major pictorial operation. Nor would their absence seem to do much damage. Without them, the balance of the picture wouldn't be knocked out, and the space they vacated wouldn't look especially empty. Or if it did, it could quickly be filled with a couple more sheep.

In short, these figures are in every way extraneous. They're mis-fits to the scene, and they're simple to remove, and they're not missed when they're gone. And yet Claude puts them in. Are they a mistake, an old habit? That's one explanation: the artist was simply unable to abandon narrative subject-matter, unable to devote himself (as he should have) to pure landscape. Or is there something positive that they give to his landscape painting?

There is. What they give is precisely their extraneousness - or to put that another way, their contingent presence. They aren't merely a distraction. What they're doing is intimating that they might easily not be here. What these added-in figures bring to this landscape is a sense of temporary visitation.

The Landscape with Jacob, Laban and his Daughters is a conspicuously alterable picture. The group of four figures could be taken out without harm. But that's just why it should be left in, to hold on to its feeling of contingency. These extras don't seem to live in this country. They are arrivers, who touch down on the grass like otherworldly visitors. They are apparitions, who might dematerialise at any moment.

Far from interrupting the view, they intensify its magic. In the story they are Bible characters. But in the picture they are gleaming fairy figures, lightly and delicately standing on the earth. Their strangeness to the place makes the place in turn seem stranger. They lend an extra aura of wonder to the dreamland around them. They make you see this world as only fragilely, hoveringly inhabited. It's a place that's occupied, but might have been, might be, unoccupied. The peopled landscape before us has an empty landscape implicit in it.

About the artist

Claude Lorrain (1600-82) was really called Claude Gellée and is known as Claude. Born in Lorraine, he worked as a pastry cook for a painter in Rome, and turned to art. He became the leading exponent of ideal, poetical landscape painting. Claude's nature is gracefully staged. He sets classical stories among classical ruins. His mastery of morning and evening atmosphere, of subtle vapour and shadows, astonished contemporaries and successors.