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Claude Lorrain

"The Flight into Egypt" and "The Shipwreck"

"The Flight into Egypt," Claude Lorrain

"The Flight into Egypt," Claude Lorrain

-- by Liam Harty
Claude Gellee of Lorrain (1600-1682), also known as Claude Lorrain, or simply Claude, was born in 1600 in Chamagne, a hamlet of Lorrain. He became one of the preeminent French Classical Baroque artists, and is well-known for his lyrical, classicizing landscapes. By c.1613, Claude was already residing in Rome, where he studied with Agostino Tassi. He left Rome for Naples when he was eighteen, where he trained with Gottfried Wals, a German artist also known as Goffredi, who had been an assistant to Tassi. In 1620, Claude returned to Rome to work for Tassi as his primary pupil and studio assistant. In 1625, he returned to his birthplace of Lorrain, but only stayed there until 1627, when he returned to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life. Claude suffered from gout for the last forty years of his career but continued to work daily, even if for only a few hours.

It has been suggested that Claude first took up etching through the suggestion of the German painter Joachim van Sandrart, who had arrived in Rome in 1628 and became a part of Claude's artistic circle. However, the incentive for Claude to practice printmaking was no doubt stimulated by the thriving print market in Rome at that time and the fact that there were several major print workshops near his home. Claude's work in printmaking is primarily limited to the years 1630 through 1640 and then again in the early 1650s through the early 1660s. After 1663, Claude abandoned printmaking entirely, which may have been due to increasing commissions for his paintings and difficulties he encountered in having his etchings published. Despite his masterful output of prints, it appears there was a greater interest in his talents as a painter amongst 17th century patrons, who may have regarded his prints as a more secondary activity. However, beginning as early as the 18th century, connoisseurs were reappraising Claude's etchings and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the artistic quality and art historical significance of his printed oeuvre had become fully established.

Claude Lorrain was among the most important of the French Classical Baroque artists, which also included Nicolas Poussin and Simon Vouet. The French Baroque style had its roots in the Italian classical tradition, particularly that of the Carracci. Claude and Poussin were important for legitimizing the genre of landscape painting, drawing and etching through their formal and classical idealization of nature. Despite the French Royal Academy's general contempt for landscapes during the 17th century, classical landscapes are generally characterized by the inclusion of ancient architectural structures, which serve to order the landscape through a symmetrical placement of geometricized forms. Another important element in many classical landscapes is the idealized depiction of a pastoral landscape associated with the Arcadian past, which frequently serves as a picturesque setting for an elevated religious, historical or mythological narrative.

The works of the German landscapist Adam Elsheimer influenced Claude, particularly in his intricately detailed and rich tonal treatment of trees and foliage in his works. As a result, Claude's landscapes tend to have a moody romantic flavor that is characteristic of Northern art, as opposed to the more objectively rendered academic style of the Roman and Bolognese French Classical Baroque masters. Claude's compositional style uses balanced forms and framing landscape elements, which also adds perspective depthto create a more complex and clearly structured spatial design. The Italian countryside surrounding Rome, known as the campagna, was Claude's main visual source for his idealized landscapes. While Claudeis notable in the French Classical Baroque period for his naturalistic study of the Italian terrain, he also imposed creative control over nature, arranging patterns of light and dark and using an interconnected series of landscapes motifs such as paths, bridges and rivers to carefully guide the eye through the scene. Claude also employed clearly demarcated planes of receding space to further enhance the sense of rational, classical order, which was enlivened by a more empirical analysis of nature with passages of naturalistic texture and atmospheric perspective.

Claude made detailed preparatory drawings for his etchings, but only a few have survived. Although his prints repeat many themes and motifs from his paintings, Claude conceived of his prints as independent, original works and did not regard them as being merely graphic renditions of his painted compositions. In this way, Claude participated in the revolutionary trend associated with 17th century Baroque printmaking to challenge the more functional, reproductive character of engraved Renaissance prints. This is evident in his experimental approach to the etching technique, in which he sought through a variety of innovative methods to enhance the painterly, tonal capabilities of the medium. For example, it appears he would sometimes use a pumice stone to abrade the surface of his etching plates or dip a brush in acid to achieve rough patterns of pitted marks or broadly bitten strokes, which when printed would produce deep, rich tonal effects. Through these methods, Claude sought to not merely render the linear structure of objects, which he associated with reproductive engraving, but to also convey a sense of the vaporous atmosphere surrounding landscape forms. In order to more fully exercise creative control over his etchings, Claude made a detailed drawing which he laid over the waxy ground on the copper plate. With an etching needle, he would then incise the main outline of the drawing onto the ground covering the plate. Using the same needle, he would then draw directly on the plate to add more intricate landscape details and treat the surface with his variety of experimental tonal techniques.

"The Flight into Egypt" of c.1630-33 contains a number of characteristics of the French Classical Baroque style, as well as specific features of Claude's landscape manner. There are trees placed on bothsides of the landscape vista that serve to frame and give pictorial focus to the biblical narrative. The mass of trees on the right sideof the etching extend close to the middle of the scene before dropping off abruptly into the landscape distance; this dense concentration of figures and landscape elements on the right is balanced evenly by a vast open area of landscape space on the left side of the print. As with many other landscapes by Claude, there are broad receding planes of space articulated by the expressive contrast between light and dark tonalities. The iconographic motif is based on the religious theme of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt in order to escape the slaughter of first born sons in Bethlehem ordered by King Herod. Told of the prophecy of the birth of "the king of the Jews" at the time of Christ's nativity, Herod feared his power would be usurped and ordered the massacre. The "Flight Into Egypt" was a popular theme during the Counter-Reformation period and as can be seen in Claude's print, usually featured the Virgin and Christ Child on a donkey accompanied by Joseph and two guardian angels. Although Claude only made this one etched version of the "Flight," he returned to the theme many times in a number of later paintings and drawings dating between 1641 and 1663. Although no painting by Claude exists which relates to the particular design and details of the print, there is a drawing of the theme of the "Flight," which appears to date from the mid-thirties and which also has a similar grouping of figures and the same asymmetrical layout to the landscape, but in reverse. Claude's etching The Flight into Egypt is notable for its rich plate tone and the delicate drypoint lines used to indicate the distant mountain rendered indistinct by atmospheric perspective.

"The Shipwreck," Claude Lorrain

"The Shipwreck," Claude Lorrain

Claude's second print in this exhibit is titled "The Shipwreck" and dates from c.1638-41. A dramatic seascape, the etching depicts several ships being tossed in rough waters during a violent storm. Claude did a number of coastal and harbor scenes, but most of them depict calm weather within an idyllic setting, such as "The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba" (1648). In this etching, there is a large ship in the foreground, which is the main pictorial focus of the print. The craggy vertical form of the castle on the right, the masts of the ships and the horizontal line of the seascape establishes a grid-like design to the composition. However, Claude combines this more ordered structure with a series of dynamic Baroque diagonals seen with the tilted receding masts of the central rocking ship, the slashing lines of the rain and the curved waves.

In terms of content and iconography, "The Shipwreck" may reflect the Northern influence on Claude's art, since Northern (particularly Dutch) landscape views often include romantic architectural motifs, such as ruined castles and imaginary ancient buildings. There also appears to be an emblematic theme of vanitas commonly associated with Dutch Baroque art. In juxtaposing the blasted, monumental form of the castle with the churning storm, the allegorical meaning in this etching suggests that the noble achievements of humans are ultimately insignificant compared to the forces of nature. The vanitas theme serves as a moralistic reminder that despite their inventions and innovations (signified in the nautical engineering of the ship), humans are still insignificant before the power of nature and the divine will of God. Moreover, the allegorical theme of a distressed ship in a storm frequently symbolized in Dutch art the dangerous uncertainty of life's voyage. For example, Dutch marine painters like Jan Porcellis and Simon de Vlieger specialized in shipwreck scenes from the 1620s through the 1640s and Claude could have been quite familiar with such works.

  • Hind, A.M. The Drawings of Claude Lorrain. New York: Minton, Blach, 1925.
  • Mannocci, Lino. The Etchings of Claude Lorrain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Rothlisberger, Marcel. Claude Lorrain: The Paintings. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1979.

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