Idealized Italy, Transplanted to Britain
Claude Lorrain Never Saw England, but Its Gardens Bear His Mark

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 17, 2007

How did a 17th-century French pastry chef end up shaping how the English felt about their gardens?

For the answer to that riddle, see the remarkable drawings of that onetime cook, now on view in the National Gallery of Art in "Claude Lorrain -- the Painter as Draftsman: Drawings From the British Museum."

Born Claude Gellee around 1600, the artist took the name Lorrain after the French duchy where he was born. (Most simply call him Claude.) During his long life, Claude produced some of the top pastoral scenes of his era, landing his work in the best Italian collections. The demand for his work was constant.

Though paintings were Claude's moneymaker, drawing captured his creative energy. At the National Gallery, 89 works on paper attest to his agility with chalk and wash. Claude sketched outside and in the studio. He also made sketches of his finished paintings. At the National Gallery, a handful of oil paintings borrowed from major collections augment the works on paper, demonstrating the full range of Claude's efforts in this 102-piece exhibition.

Nearly as interesting as the pictures themselves is the story of how they got here. Of the 1,100 known Claude drawings, about half are held in the British Museum, thanks to donations from English collectors. Why did so many Brits own Claudes, when they otherwise passed on Frenchmen in deference to longstanding political rivalries? Turns out Claude's vision of the countryside came to represent such a compelling link to the classical past that the British were intent on securing it for ammunition against, of all things, Enlightenment France.

Though accounts of Claude's early years vary, it's understood that the young Frenchman apprenticed as a pastry chef and moved to Rome. He wound up in service to the painter Agostino Tassi, a landscape painter of solid, if unexceptional, repute. (The same Tassi allegedly raped Artemisia Gentileschi, the budding painter.) Under Tassi's tutelage, Claude exchanged spatula for paintbrush and began turning out adept seascapes and port scenes. After traveling to Naples and perhaps back to France, Claude settled permanently in Rome.

Claude's reputation grew. Italy's wealthiest families couldn't get enough of his work. His exceptional landscapes transformed the Roman countryside, then thick with thieves and rocky outcroppings, into a near state of grace. Claude replaced unruliness with classicism, filling the frame with robust trees in expansive vistas, some peopled by amiable peasants herding obedient sheep. At the National Gallery, paintings such as "View of Tivoli at Sunset" (1642-44) give a sense of Claude's ability to produce exceptional pastorals where cows smile and trees flank the picture plan like theater curtains. For the Roman clergy and their cronies, Claude's ideal landscapes referred to a classical past and the myth of a lost Arcadia.

Fast-forward 100 years.

When British landscape designers visited Italy in the early 18th century, they were so utterly captivated by the classical beauty of the Claudes they saw that his pictures became templates for British gardens. The quintessential British picturesque garden, with its strategically placed faux ruins, followed drawings like "The Tomb of Cecilia Metella" (circa 1638), where a dilapidated monument emerges from the land as naturally as the great tree to its left. It's as if both nature and man-made order had coexisted from the beginning.

England's picturesque gardens were as much political stances as aesthetic ones. Their "naturalness" was meant to show the French, couturiers of their own newfangled, corset-strict Enlightenment gardens, that they had nothing on Britain's long-standing associations with the classical past.

It just so happened that the ammunition for England's aesthetic battle was supplied by a Frenchman.

One British estate that felt Claude's influence was Chatsworth House, home to the dukes of Devonshire. In the mid-18th century, Lancelot "Capability" Brown upturned a segment of the estate's French-style gardens to make three-dimensional Claudes, complete with rolling hillocks and thick plantings. The dukes also collected Claude's drawings; many of the pictures on view at the National Gallery hailed from Chatsworth House. Many others were culled from the collection of Richard Payne Knight, a wealthy aesthete who lived until 1824.

It's not hard to understand Claude's appeal. He positions his viewers at a vantage point just above the Earth but below the sky. The foreground is clear but we're not stuck in it; our eye can travel far into the unobstructed distance. A chalk and wash drawing showing Jesus's parents resting on their flight to Egypt -- Claude favored the biblical scenes that took place out of doors -- puts us in intimate proximity to Mary and Joseph while giving us access to distant hills and aqueducts.

Whatever Claude was recording, it wasn't the reality of the 17th-century Roman countryside. The rocky terrain of the Campagna is transformed into a place where herders and their animals can relax and enjoy the sunset, as if man and beast lived entirely contented lives. Even chaotic seaports appear sedate in Claude's pictures.

When a commission called for a scene of turmoil, as when a patron demanded a seascape to illustrate his family motto, "Against Winds and Water," Claude produced "A Storm off the Coast," a picture in which even rollicking waves twist into artful curls. These seascapes act like scenic backdrops for heroic plays, with boats piled into a picturesque mess as men struggle to save their vessels.

Claude's nature isn't neutered -- it's pruned to a near-perfect state. That vision proved entirely palatable to Claude's patrons, who were disinclined to the vagaries of life and preferred to think they ruled both man and nature.

But these pictures didn't just deliver good news. They were meant to caution patrons as much as reassure them. The ruined temples in Claude's landscapes may have linked 17th-century Rome to a classical past, but that same past was dead and gone. That's why a slightly mournful quality pervades many of Claude's pictures -- their sheer perfection invokes the impossible.

Claude Lorrain -- the Painter as Draftsman: Drawings From the British Museum is in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through Aug. 12. Free. Call 202-737-4215 or visit

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company