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Ashmolean Museum Opens Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape

The Ashmolean Museum presents Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape an exhibition on view 6th October 2011 to 8th January 2012.

The Ashmolean’s major exhibition this autumn will be CLAUDE LORRAIN: THE ENCHANTED LANDSCAPE, rediscovering the father of European landscape painting, Claude Gellée (c.1600–1682), or Claude Lorrain as he is best known.

Claude Lorrain, Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia, 1682. Oil on canvas, 1200 x 1500 mm. ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

In partnership with the Städel Museum, Frankfurt, the exhibition will bring together 140 works from international collections, created at different points in the artist’s career. By uniting ‘pairs’ of Claude’s paintings and making a comprehensive survey of his work in different media, the exhibition brings new research to bear on his working methods, to reveal an unconventional side to Claude which has previously been little known.

Born in France, Claude travelled first to Italy at the age of 13 or 14, settling in Rome for the rest of his life in 1627. The scenery of his great compositions was based on his studies of the ancient ruins and the rolling country of the Tiber Valley and the Roman Campagna. Claude’s ability to translate his vision of the countryside and the majesty of natural light with the aid of his brush won him the admiration of his contemporaries, above all else, as a ‘natural painter’. It has been his signature treatment of classical landscape and literature which has impressed itself on generations of artists and collectors, and which has made his name synonymous with great landscape painting.

The cult of Claude which grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries, begun by British ‘Grand Tourists’, has left a profound mark on our history and landscape. English country houses are well stocked with both originals by Claude and with copies. Responding to aristocratic taste and fashion, designers such as Capability Brown, Henry Hoare and William Kent reproduced his ideal views in the parklands of great houses from Blenheim Palace, Rousham House and Stowe, to Stourhead and Chatsworth. Claude’s drawings were collected with no less enthusiasm by English connoisseurs, as a result, over 40% of his drawings are now in the British Museum. Claude’s influence on later artists is apparent in the work of Gainsborough, Turner and Constable, who described him as ‘the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw’.

A lesser-known side to Claude is the eccentricity of his graphic art. CLAUDE LORRAIN: THE ENCHANTED LANDSCAPE will exhibit 13 paintings alongside related drawings and etchings from international and private collections, and from the Ashmolean’s own extensive holdings. Claude was a dedicated graphic artist. He drew for the sake of mastering the world of nature but also because drawing was a pleasure in itself. Many of his drawings were made as works of art in their own right. During his own lifetime Claude’s fame grew rapidly. As a guard against forgeries, he made copies of his paintings in a book, the Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), which, by the time of his death, contained 200 drawings. The book also gave him a collection of ideas which he could reuse when necessary. Although he made only 40 prints in total, all of which are on display, he took a serious interest in printmaking. Similar to his drawings, his principle focus was to explore the potential of the medium. His exceptional technique – a painterly brush-and-ink style replicating natural effects – was a novelty in contemporary printmaking. The spectacular ‘Fireworks’ series, ten etchings made during a week of firework displays in Rome, illustrate his experimental style and will be on show together in the Ashmolean’s exhibition.

Unlike contemporaries who had an academic training, Claude’s style and artistic process were unique to him. He worked frequently with existing materials progressing from one painting to another through a process of variation and combination. His sketching excursions provided him with a stock of motifs, including trees, hills, rivers and antique ruins, which became constant accessories in his paintings. Figure groups were shifted from one composition to another. Landscapes, like stage scenery, were taken out for reuse with a different set of characters. Elsewhere he would cut compositions in two or enlarge them with separate sheets. Occasionally, he would pick up a discarded study and add detail to make it a finished work of art, often with peculiar results.

Claude was also the first artist to specialise in painting ‘pairs’. Approximately half his compositions were made as companion pieces, the earliest of which, on display here, are Landscape with the Judgement of Paris and Coast View (both 1633). The idea of pairs is also found among his prints. While many of his pairs show a compositional correspondence, contrast played as great a role as similarity. Often an Arcadian landscape is combined with a maritime view, or a morning scene with an evening setting. The pairs were not always executed concurrently: his very last painting, the Ashmolean’s great Ascanius and the Stag of Sylvia (1682), was made 5 years after its companion, Aeneas’s Farewell to Dido in Carthage (1676) now in Hamburg.

CLAUDE LORRAIN: THE ENCHANTED LANDSCAPE will display some of Claude’s greatest masterpieces, works which have made his art familiar and well-loved. In placing these beside his graphic art and exploring his singular methods of working, the exhibition aims to expose an unexplored dimension to one of the western canon’s most famous names.

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