Claude Lorraine (1600-1682) was a French painter most well known for his beautiful landscapes. I have always enjoyed his works. As winter has now finally retreated to its icy abodes for the next six months (at least in my neck of the woods), leaving us with the joys, warmth and wonders of an incipient spring and summer, and as nature begins to blossom into her full beauty, I am often reminded of the lovely and magical landscapes of Lorraine. If ever there was a painter of both vernal and aestival joys, it was Lorraine. As a matter of fact, so popular were his paintings in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that tourists, travelers and fellow painters, especially in England, would often use something called a “Claude glass”, a type of mirror through which someone might view a natural setting. The Claude glass created a sort of Claude Lorraine like hue to the scene: a soft, almost humid atmosphere, imbued with shady and shimmering light, peppered with both natural and man made enticements.
The best way to describe a Claude Lorraine landscape is to think of a hot summer day somewhere in the Southern U.S. There is a certain quality to the Southern summer which is hard to describe: beyond the often oppressive heat, the air is filled with moisture, and a kind of serene calmness pervades everything as life seems to slow down, magically and inexorably, beneath a blanket of warmth, shade, sun and chattering Cicadas. The rich vegetation of the Southern climate also creates a panorama of green life and brilliant floral patterns spread among the many trees and flowers. Although originally from New England, I now reside in a Southern state, and the South in the summer is truly a delightful place to be. Most people hate the heat. I like it. As I like to tell people, unlike snow, you don’t have to shovel humidity.
The painting above is a nice example of Lorraine’s work. It contains both natural beauty, such as the trees, the water, the clouds and the distant, misty horizon, but it also depicts man made adornments, such as the old bridge and castle in the background. In many ways this mixture of natural and human elements in a evocative natural environment is a precursor to the 19th century Romantic love of nature and old, man made ruins. Claude also adds some Classical depth to this landscape: we see the story of Apollo, playing the violin, unaware that Hermes is stealing his cattle. The addition of cattle makes the scene all the more pastoral, while maintaining its mythological, and therefore unreal essence.
Perhaps the following quote describes best Claude Lorraine’s paintings. It is by John Constable, the great British romantic landscape painter, who describes Claude as, “the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw”, and says of his landscapes:
all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart
The painting below is pure pastoral: a shepherd with his flock. I love the play of light, the golden mellow atmosphere, the peace and calm of a lovely summer day. To experience such things both through art and nature, through aesthetics as well as life itself, is indeed a blessing. This painting does capture such delights, what Constable called, “the calm sunshine of the heart”.
Nature is a beautiful thing. And painters who devoted themselves to depicting the beauty of nature have always been among my favorite. Just as I find a painting or photo of a nude woman to be beautiful, so too do I find the magical landscapes of artists such as Claude Lorraine examples of beauty.