There was something about French-born artist Claude Lorrain’s landscapes that struck a chord with the 18th- and 19th-century British gentry.
That likely had a lot to do with the way Lorrain — who spent nearly his entire career in Rome, often painting in the surrounding countryside — represented nature as something that could be organized and controlled, said Richard Rand, a guest curator who worked on “Claude Lorrain — The Painter as Draftsman: Drawings from the British Museum,” a new show now on view at the National Gallery of Art. Such Brits, who would have been exposed to Lorrain’s work while on the grand tour of the continent, were so taken with the idealized, Arcadian settings Lorrain perfected that these British, ever the inveterate gardeners, began to sculpt their own estates “to look like Claude landscapes,” Rand said.
Lorrain, who would serve as a major influence for later landscape painters such as J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Cole, always has been a harder sell with an American audience, who apparently are less taken by his utopian view of nature, Rand noted in an essay in the exhibit’s catalogue. Moreover, enjoying Lorrain’s understated and often highly refined works takes patience — a trait rarely associated with the national character.
Still, there are reasons for those with an incorrigibly Yankee constitution to stop by the show.
For one, the exhibit, mainly made up of dozens of Lorrain’s drawings, provides an excellent overview of the great 17th-century artist’s oeuvre — the vast majority of which has passed through England at one time or another. It’s in the drawings, which he mainly kept for himself, that Lorrain worked out many of the elements — trees and figure groupings, for instance — of his full-scale paintings. And the more you look at the diversity of these ink or chalk drawings — which range from the Japanese brush-painting-style abstraction of “The Tiber from Monte Mario Looking Southeast” to the exquisitely detailed “Landscape with the Adoration of the Golden Calf” — the better sense you get of just how versatile he was.
But some of Lorrain’s drawings (more than 1,100 still exist, some 500 of which are owned by the British Museum) also served another purpose: as proof of his work against forgers, or so Lorrain reportedly asserted, said exhibit co-curator Philip Conisbee. One hundred ninety-five of the drawings, some of which are included in the show, were created as highly finished replicas of his actual paintings. The drawings were often carried out on blue paper — a medium that infused these scenes with a nocturnal, faintly foreboding quality. Lorrain then bound the completed drawings in an album dubbed the “Liber Veritatis” or “Book of Truth.” In a pre-photographic era, he was “the only artist who kept such a rigorous record of his paintings,” Conisbee said.
Aside from the drawings, a handful of finished paintings included in the show bring the signature elements of a Lorrain composition into full view. “If there’s a textbook landscape by Claude, this is it,” Conisbee asserted, pointing to a large painting of a nymph and satyr dancing. Such aspects as the ruined antique temple, central tree in the foreground and hills in the distance bathed in a golden light reappear throughout Lorrain’s works, Conisbee said. (It was a formula that Lorrain more or less followed when he first came to prominence as a painter of seascapes in the 1630s. For instance, a typical seaport as conjured by Lorrain was lined with classical architecture and clusters of trees.)
Of course, these idyllic landscapes were also perfect habitats for characters from the towering literary achievements of such ancients as Virgil and Ovid. Indeed, Virgil’s epic poem, “The Aeneid,” which recounts the exploits of Rome’s mythic founder, Aeneas, comes to life in many of Lorrain’s drawings. It was a marriage of subject and style that Lorrain’s Italian royal patrons encouraged. After all, they liked to imagine themselves the direct descendants of this Roman, if illusory, hero.
“Claude Lorrain — The Painter as Draftsman: Drawings from the British Museum” is on view through Aug. 12 at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.