Founder of the romantic or picturesque tradition in French landscape painting. In fact the work “picturesque” was coined by the English to describe effects in nature similar to those observed in impressionistic paintings of the type of Claude’s. Claude was a worshipper of classical antiquity, and he associated with Poussin in Italy as they pursued that ideal together. At the same time he anticipated several aspects of nineteenthcentury Impressionism. Sandrart tells us that “Claude lay before daylight and into the night in the fields so that he learned to depict the morning and the evening glow with great naturalness.” He apparently sketched and in some cases may have painted before nature. He studied nature with reference to color, atmosphere and changing light conditions and transferred these effects to his canvases by a shimmering technique that approximated Impressionism while still retaining the solidity of forms. His drawings, especially in wash, are constructed of veils of chiaroscuro patterned like those of Chinese landscape painters; and they come even closer to Impressionist dissolution of form than do his paintings.
In contrast to his learned friend Poussin, Claude was virtually illiterate, and as such resembled the “naive eye” with which the later nineteenth century approached nature.. Born in Lorraine, he was an orphan at twelve years. He assisted his brother, a wood engraver, and was brought to Rome by a merchant. Moving to Naples he there learned painting from the German Wols. Back in Rome he was apprenticed to Agostino Tossi, a painter of harbor scenes whose style reflects the influence of his friend Paul Brill. In 1625 Claude worked for a while in Venice and returned to Lorraine. After two years’ vicissitudes he came back permanently to Rome. His earliest known paintings are two battles (Louvre) of about 1631. There followed a series of etchings based on studies of the Roman Campagna. Of the two landscape styles forming in Italy, Claude was influenced more by the northern tradition of Brill and Elsheimer than by the constructions of the Italian Carracci (which influenced Poussin.) This can be clearly seen in his early etchings. These presented exciting romantic incidents such as the Storm (1630), or Elsheimer types such as the Flight into Egypt. Many of his paintings can be dated by means of his Liber Vertitatis, a collection of about two hundred drawings made by Claude after his finished pictures.
It was once thought that the publication was to prevent counterfeiting of his landscapes (which started early) but it is now assumed that he did this to preserve for himself the motifs of paintings sold abroad. The book was begun by Claude in the 1640’s when he was painting on commission for the King of Spain. It was obtained (in part) by the Duke of Devonshire and engraved in 1770.
The style of Claude’s painting shows little development except for a certain broadening with maturity, under the influence of Poussin. Unlike the complex pictorial structure of Poussin, Claude organized simply and by stereotyped formulas. The space of his paintings seems to be constructed as a huge box, marked in its recession by a series of planar elements parallel to the canvas. A classical sense of measure can be felt in the firm foreground platform and the stagelike elements which intrude at intervals from the sides. Where possible he employed light-dark alternations receding on grass or on water, as in the Embarcation of St. Ursula (London). Many of his designs are based on crossed diagonals drawn from the corners, as in the Embarcation of the Queen of Sheba (London) or on such a system doubled in reference to a central object, as in Landscape with Apollo Temple (Rome). He delighted in painting into the sun, thus disembodying the solid forms of nature and turning trees into a filmy radiance, e.g., Hagar’s Banishment (Munich). His reliance on light and atmosphere as vehicles of expression is demonstrated by the series-paintings he did showing several times of day. Examples of this are the Morning and Evening (Hermitage), which also have religious titles. Figure painting did not interest Claude, and he practiced the Flemish system of delegating that portion of his canvas to assistants. Among those he so employed were Filippo Lauri, Jan Meil, Jacques Courtois and Francesco Allegri.