THE PICTURESQUELY clumped trees we plant along our interstates owe much to Claude Lorrain. The green suburban views we frame with picture windows are also in his debt. So are golf courses. And overlooks. And countless works of art, Constables and Gainsboroughs, amateurish snapshots, Bierstadts and Morans. The beauty of the changing sky, of clouds seen above water, of blue hills in the distance, is in part his invention. A pastry-cook turned painter who sold his light-filled landscapes to princes, popes and kings, he is among the most influential masters in the history of art.
His real name was Claude Gelle'e, but no one calls him that. He was born in 1600 in the Duchy of Lorraine, but lived so long in Rome that scholars often speak of him as if he were Italian. In France he's known as Le Lorrain, in English-speaking countries -- whose poetry and parks his pictures changed profoundly -- as Claude Lorrain or Claude. Though he died 300 years ago, his vision lives among us still. His name is stamped as firmly on the art of landscape painting as is Bach's on the fugue.
A major Claude exhibit -- part astonishing, part stale -- goes on public view today at the National Gallery of Art. It will go to Paris after closing here Jan. 2. Organized by the gallery's H. Diane Russell and jointly sponsored by the gallery and the Re'union des muse'es nationaux de France, it is the first Claude retrospective mounted in this country.
It is astonishing because Claude's peculiarly modern loyalty to format, his mastery of color, and his great verve as a draftsman have never been displayed so well in America before. It seems stale, too, because the rapture Claude evokes has been dimmed and dulled by 300 years of incessant repetition. Time and time again he shows us man at peace in nature. Our first instinct is to yawn.
Claude was once admired more than he is now. Goethe loved his art, so did Keats and Henry James. Horace Walpole called him "the Raphael of landscape." "If any thing could come between our love," wrote Constable to his wife in 1823, "it is him." Yet today we're somehow jaded. We know his themes too well. They infect the way we mow our lawns and pick our picture postcards. He has often been denied the credit he deserves. Most of us regard the responses his art taught us -- the restfulness we feel before a distant panorama, the awe we sense at sunset -- as less his than our own.
Other painters, before Claude, might have found the landscape soothing, but you would never guess it from the pictures that they left. Petrarch (1304-1374), it is often said, was the first European to climb a mountain for the view, an act then thought most odd. "The average layman," writes Kenneth Clark, "would not have thought it wrong to enjoy nature; he would simply have said that nature was not enjoyable." The wilderness was harrowing. It was someplace you were cast into. Hansel and Gretel would never have been tempted to join the Sierra Club. To the medieval mind, mountains were but obstacles, seas suggested shipwrecks, the woods were full of wolves.
Claude's paintings took another view. He made the landscape lovely. In almost all his pictures, nature appears blessed, embraced, by a liquid light that is the love of God.
There are more than 50 oils in the exhibition and most of them, at first glimpse, look surprisingly alike. None of Claude's imitators was more obedient than was Claude himself to Claudian convention. He was as loyal to his format as Albers was to floating squares, as Pollock was to drips. Claude knew what would sell. In almost all his paintings, tall trees in the foreground frame the panorama as wings might frame a stage set; there is sky-reflecting water in the middle distance, and haze-wrapped hills beyond. All his landscapes are inhabited -- by angels or madonnas, shepherds or Greek gods, soldiers, dancing peasants -- but these actors are bit players, even when immortal. It's the landscape that's divine.
The painter's reputation was first spread, and then dulled, by his repetitions. When you see one Claude, his critics claim, you have seen them all.
A chief virtue of the present show is the way it undercuts that unjust accusation.
Claude played endless variations upon his single theme. The color of his light is never twice the same. Nor are his small details. One might compare, for instance, "The Finding of the Infant Moses," which has been borrowed from the Prado, to "The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" from the Cleveland Museum of Art. At first they seem twins. The tree in the left foreground, the round stone building on the shore, the boat upon the lake, the palm tree to the right, the waterfall, the bridge and the mountain in the distance appear practically identical. But when one looks again, one discovers that the palm fronds in the Cleveland painting have been stirred by sudden wind, the day has somehow brightened, the roof of the round building is open to the sky (in the "Moses" it's repaired), the boat is on the lake (in the "Moses" it is moored).
Ignore, for a moment, the stories from the Bible, from Greek myths or Latin poets, that Claude's paintings tell. Look instead at his skies. No two are the same. Some show dawn, some evening, the days are moist or dry.
Claude was the first luminist. In some ways he predicted the atmospheric art of painters as diverse as Martin Johnson Heade, Vuillard and Jules Olitski. Most artists who preceded him, even Leonardo, painted airless pictures, objects in a vacuum. Claude painted not just trees and hills, but the colors of the particles of moisture in the air. The atmosphere that fills his "Pastoral Landscape" from Yale University is rich with pinks and blues. The air in "Seaport With Ulysses Returning Chryseis to Her Father," from the Louvre, is suffused with sunny yellows. No photograph can capture the glow of Claude's soft colors. His paintings must be seen.
A world view that today is taken much for granted motivates these paintings. In 1600, the year that Claude was born, the scholar Giordano Bruno -- who argued that the earth was not the center of the universe, but one of many worlds -- was burned at the stake in Rome. In 1613, the year that Claude arrived there, Galileo published his "Letter on Sunspots," in which he claimed the earth was not still, but in motion. The painters of the Renaissance had put mankind, and the viewer, at the center of the universe. In the world Claude shows us, as in Galileo's, man, and mankind's gods as well, are dwarfed by nature's harmony. Claude's universe is boundless.
He studied it with care. "He tried," his painting comrade, Joachim von Sandart, wrote in 1675, "by every means to penetrate nature, lying in the fields before the break of day and until night in order to learn to represent very exactly the red morning sky, sunrise and sunset and the evening hours." Claude was far from learned. He seems to have had trouble counting above 10, he spoke an awkward mix of poor French and Italian, his spelling was atrocious, and yet he could portray nature and her changes with extraordinary clarity.
He somehow learned to focus on her all-at-onceness, not on her small details. That is perhaps most clearly seen in the people in his pictures, and the animals as well. They're so awkward they are laughable. The white deer in "Cephalus and Procris United by Diana" looks less like a deer than it does like a moose. Try as he might, Claude could never get his cows right, or his dancers, either. He used to say that he sold his landscapes, but gave away his figures. One almost feels his clumsiness was partially intentional. His figures never manage to upstage their world.
There are awesome painted landscapes in the first part of this show -- "View of La Cresenza," which was bought four years ago by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though one of the smallest is among the most impressive -- but it is in the exhibit's later chapters, those devoted to his etchings and his free, amazing drawings, that he seems wholly fresh.
The beauty of Claude's oils seems dependent on their colors, but his unfamiliar etchings, though done in black and white, seem just as full of changing weather, atmosphere and light. Look, for instance, at the three states of "The Herd Returning in Stormy Weather." The sequence of these prints is almost cinematic. By minute alterations in inking and in line, Claude makes the storm appear to lift, the sky appear to brighten.
His color paintings are imposing, his etchings also fine, but it is his drawings that take the breath away. He drew with verve, with utter freedom. His brush-and-ink work seems, in his "Park View," here from Oxford, as fresh as that of the Chinese. With one thin wash of ink Claude could make us see the soft glow of the evening sky, the heaviness of rock, or the look of morning light on antique Roman columns. The finest landscape drawings here -- "Panoramic View of the Sasso" from the Art Institute of Chicago, "Landscape With Dance" from Windsor Castle, "Pastoral Landscape" from the Morgan Library, "The Grotto of Neptune in Tivoli" from Haarlem, the Kimbell Museum's "River Landscape" -- more than justify a visit to this show.
As an introduction to Claude's half-strange, half-familiar art, it will not be soon surpassed. Russell spent more than five years on the exhibition and her effort shows. Her scholarship is original, her picture selection impeccable, her 480-page catalogue will be, for many years, a standard work on Claude. Her show rewards patience, it is better at third viewing than it is at first. Claude knew what he was doing. Slowly, almost magically, his pictures shed their restfulness, their peace.