Published  15/08/2001

Claude Quiche, Claude Lorrain and the World of the Gods

Claude Quiche, Claude Lorrain and the World of the Gods

Musee d'Art Ancien et Contemporain, Epinal, France
through 20 August 2001

A remarkable exhibition has just opened in a remote town of the Vosges mountain area of north-western France. The town is Epinal, where the great 17th century painter Claude Lorrain was brought up. Consumer gourmets will be familiar with the other great product of the area, the succulent ‘Quiche Lorraine’, mainstay of innumerable delicatessen counters. This is not a large exhibition; it contains some 14 paintings and 6 drawings, but it is of exceptional significance. Nor is Epinal particularly worth a detour through the Vosges, although in this instance it is a useful background to the career of a highly influential 17th century master of landscape, mythology, and mise en scene.

Claude’s admirer and follower, the English artist Richard Wilson, (but whose landscapes were pale imitations minus the mythology) and the great English landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, were both profoundly influenced in their work by the painting compositions of Claude (as he is invariably known). The 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke, who sought to clarify the contrast between the beautiful and the sublime in scenery and experience, could find no greater exposition of these respective values than in the paintings of Claude. By then they formed a special craze of leading Grand Tour grandees, who brought them back home from the continent, and competed with each other to epitomise these landscapes of the Roman ‘campagna’ by replication, through Brown, in their own Arcadian parks and around their classical mansion houses. Later, Turner also caught the magic of Claude’s sublime, and developed it anew.

Claude — born in 1600, dying at a great age in l682 — marked the 17th century, He left Epinal at the age of 20. From 1618 to 1648 the whole of Europe was engulfed in the debilitating, interminable conflicts of the Thirty Years War. Claude painted through and beyond this period, mainly from Rome. Here he established a growing clientele, seeking an escape through the mythological and classical memories of an earlier, Arcadian golden age.

For Claude, it is the serene moment that is all-important in his paintings. The split second, for example, at which in Ascanius’ shooting of the Stag of Silvia (in the painting of the same name at the Prado) there is a frozen moment of calm, silent frame, plus the absence of lust, rape, storm or terror that was the reality of Europe at the time. In ‘Coast Scene with Europa and the Bull’, from the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, the figures pause in pleasant frolic. Europa became a famous and sought after theme in Claude’s work, for its mood of reassuring pacifism in the mythical version. This work was first etched by Claude in l634; here we also see the last thematic version executed in l647, as the Thirty Years War was drawing to a conclusion.

Claude is most about sun and light. In ‘The Embarkation of St Paul at Ostia’, Prado, he encapsulates the timeless moment of boarding ship at sunrise; jetty flooded in golden light. In the matching work ‘Tobias and Angel’, also from the Prado, he defines the melancholic hush of sundown. Claude utilised classical mythology to people these landscapes, and the figures always remain as accessories — rather than simply providing a backdrop — and it is the landscape that is the main subject chosen to negotiate terms between beauty and the sublime. At Epinal, amidst the Vosges mountains, Claude first sensed such qualities in the natural world, and grasped these essential phenomena. This location is the ideal place to visit, to recapture and compare key works by Claude within such an environment, and also to sample the cuisine of the region.

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