“Here lies Claude Lorrain who painted the sun in the sky.” That is the inscription on the artist’s tomb in the church of Santa Trinità dei Monte, at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome.
Claude, a native of Lorraine, France, was pivotal in the emergence of landscape as a painting subject in its own right. In the seventeenth century, this was a truly extraordinary achievement. For millennia, the human figure had been the primary interest in European art, but in Rome during the 1630s a new generation of artists was attracting interest because of their portrayal of landscapes. Even more remarkable, there was a sufficient number of collectors keen to purchase these works.
In addition to Claude, the other leading exponents of landscape painting in Rome were Nicolas Poussin and Salvator Rosa. As you will see from their works in this room, the landscapes they depicted were idealised, and usually had a biblical, historical or mythological explanation attached to their creation. Claude characterised nature as a place of seclusion, intellectual relaxation and civilised retreat in his landscape paintings. It reminded his classically educated viewers of the pastoral poetry of antiquity – Latin writers such as Virgil, Horace and Theocritus.
Claude arrived in Rome in 1627. Landscape became his principal subject and paintings of seaports were one of his specialties. By the 1640s, when he painted this work, he was considered the leading exponent of landscape painting in Rome. His influence on other artists was immense, and it can be seen just by glancing around this room, where works by Richard Wilson, Aelbert Cuyp and JMW Turner are all very much under his spell.
This painting clearly demonstrates how Claude “painted the sun in the sky”. The whole scene appears not only flooded with sunlight, but everything seems to be an extension of it, a materialisation of the light, so to speak.
Typical of his work, there is a great sense of atmosphere and immense distance in this painting. Depth is created using a polarisation from the lightest light in the background to the darkest dark in the foreground. What happens in between the poles of light and dark, which are also the extremes of near and distant, is quite amazing to investigate.
You begin to realise that the painting consists of a fantastically expanded array of tones, tones that are subdivided into the most minute intervals. You can follow a vast series of transitions of tone along the row of buildings on the left. The buildings we see way in the distance still retain plenty of detail, and the tones continue to subdivide far beyond them, getting paler and paler, eventually melting into each other until all distinction disappears.
Turner donated of the contents of his studio to the British nation and stipulated that two of his paintings should be hung alongside two paintings by Claude – a request that the National Gallery, London continues to honour.