Claude almighty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 8

Claude almighty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 8

Claude almighty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 8

Claude almighty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 8

With his revolutionary vision of nature, Claude didn't follow the herd. Which is why we shouldn't take his genius for granted, says Jonathan Jones

Claude is such a hallowed name in western art that his true originality has got lost in a golden aura of vague importance. He is part of the furniture, a lacquer cabinet in the library, used for centuries, valued as an antique but scarcely noticed any more. His imitators are themselves classics. What does that make him? A god who lived before the gods, the ancient deity from whom Turner and Cézanne derive their demiurgical powers, even his real name has got lost in time. No one, at least in English, calls him Claude Gellée, the name he was christened with some time around the start of the 17th century. First he became Claude Lorrain, after the region from which he hailed, then simply Claude – a cognomen that might belong to an old cat lying by the fire, familiar and taken utterly for granted.

The Duchy of Lorraine, where Claude Gellée was born sometime around 1600, was no sun-drenched Mediterranean orchard but a temperate region surviving dangerously between France and the German states, threatened by the Thirty Years War and soon to be coveted by Cardinal Richelieu. One of Claude's first biographers claims he went to Germany, then Rome, in the humble capacity of a pastry chef. It was supposedly as a cook of sweet confections that he entered the household of the landscape artist Agostino Tassi, who recognized his talent and taught him to paint. While agreeing that Tassi taught Claude to paint, art historians thumb their noses at the pastry story, but it is pleasing to imagine that this greatest of painters was once a cook.

Pastoral Landscape – to be offered at Bonhams' July Old Masters Sale in London – was painted in 1635-37 when he was still growing into his timelessness. It is a startling reminder of how much he added to the language of art and how revolutionary his vision of nature was when it burst into the European imagination four centuries ago. It is a moving vision still.

Who can resist Claude's light? The sky of this painting is a limitless vault of blue, dappled with white fluffy clouds in its upper grandeur, flaming to gold on the horizon, and invading every single part of the painting. Pastoral Landscape contains the luminous secret of Claude's magic. What makes him different from previous painters of natural light? Bellini captured the pink thrill of an Italian dawn in his Agony in the Garden in about 1465. Titian created the overwhelming golden Assumption of the Virgin in 1516. Yet however luminescent Renaissance art became, its objects are still solid, self-contained forms. Light and shadow, even in the shimmering works of Leonardo, define things but do not possess them.

The light of Pastoral Landscape is all-pervasive and saturating: it does not reveal things so much as dissolve them. Every leaf, face and cloudlet is suffused by sunlight. Shade itself is a poetic contre-jour effect that deepens the sense of wrap-around sunshine. The trees are transparent membranes, like splayed specimens of lungs, dissected against the sky. Even the underside of a bridge is bathed in gold. Water is a mirror of the brightness above. Light is no longer a component of the picture: it is the picture.

It is often said that landscape painters in the Romantic age emulated Claude because he was popular with their aristocratic patrons, who cherished his classical grandeur. It is certainly true that he has been beloved of the wealthy since his lifetime. His works became as indispensable to English and Scottish stately homes as a temple down by the lake. His painting A River Landscape with Jacob and Laban and his Daughters was auctioned in Britain in 1686, just four years after his death: it ended up in Petworth House, where JMW Turner was to be a regular guest.

Turner was so keen for his debt to Claude to be remembered that he stipulated his paintings must always hang with his progenitor's works, as two of them still do in the National Gallery today. But this is not mere genuflection to tradition for its own sake. Turner was no snob. It is not the 'classicism' of Claude that entranced the Romantics, but his romanticism.

The dizzying, transforming light that sculpts Turner's painted worlds is already there in Claude. It irradiates Pastoral Landscape. The most spectacular discovery of early 19th century art – the breakthrough that leads to Impressionism – is already there in Claude, in his light that blurs all boundaries and makes everything in the painting an emanation of itself.

The light of Italy leaves nothing untouched in Claude's dazzled sun-worship, and the remarkable consequence is to change utterly what a painting can be. Renaissance and Baroque paintings tell stories. Claude paints atmosphere. When light becomes the dissolving and synthesizing presence that it does in his paintings, it abolishes detail and narrative: instead of reading the picture for information, we experience it as a poetic stimulus. Everything works together, as in music, to create a mood. Pastoral Landscape evokes a profound sense of peace and escape. It does this with the same powerful atmospherics that Claude takes to sublime heights in his eerie spell of a painting, The Enchanted Castle (1664).

Pastoral Landscape too is an ode that owes its emotion to antiquity. This quiet painted moment is both a convincing episode of country life – one of Claude's most devoted admirers would be John Constable – and a scene inspired by Virgil's Latin poems the Georgics and the Eclogues. The countryfolk chatting in the golden sunlight are clad in classical garments. They are not of the passing world after all, but timeless. Claude has the power to remove us from time into his own Arcadia. His day goes on forever.

Jonathan Jones writes about art for The Guardian.

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