fig. 1 
Claude Gellée (Le Lorrain)

The superb Wooded landscape by Claude (fig. 1) is the most recent acquisition of an old master drawing for the National Gallery of Victoria. It is a page from the celebrated Wildenstein album, which first came to light in 1960, and is so called after the dealer who bought it.1 This, like all the pages from the Wildenstein Album, is an exceptionally well-documented drawing. All historical information in this note, including details of provenance, is taken from Marcel Rothlisberger’s publications: M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Wildenstein Album, Paris, 1962, no. 9: M. Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Drawings, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968, no. 877; M. Roethlisberger, The Claude Lorrain Album in the Norton Simon, Inc. Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971, no. 33. The album, which is now dismembered, contained sixty drawings extending over the whole of Claude’s active life, each one being a work of the highest quality. Their uniform excellence and Claude’s known reluctance to part with his drawings, initially led Marcel Rothlisberger to surmise that Claude himself may have been responsible for collating the album.2 Μ. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Wildenstein Album, p. 10. However, this hypothesis was soon rejected on the grounds that the arbitrary sequence is unlikely coming from the artist, that the sheets include non-sequential numbering, that some of them had already been mounted earlier, and that some of the drawings had been trimmed.3 M. Roethlisberger, The Claude Lorrain Album, p. 7. The album cannot be dated before 1677, the date of the latest drawing, and its make-up, when still intact, suggested a date around 1700.4 ibid., p. 6. It would therefore appear that the album was put together at some time between Claude’s death in 1682 and 1713, the year in which its first certain owner died. Considering the exceptional quality of the drawings, they must have been selected from stock left in his studio by someone with an intimate knowledge of Claude’s work, possibly with the help of one of three heirs who lived with him – a daughter and two nephews. Claude’s death inventory of 16825 M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, New Haven, 1961, vol. I, pp. 73–76. includes twelve books of sketches, the Liber Veritatis, and a chest full of prints and drawings, and Baldinucci reports on ‘five or six great books … of these drawings of views from nature’, plus ‘some bundles of loose sheets’.6 ibid., pp. 53–62, for Baldinucci’s life of Claude, esp. p. 62. 

The album is cited in the death inventory of Prince don Livio Odescalchi (1652–1713), Duke of Bracciano, and nephew of the Oldescalchi Pope Innocent XI. Tradition has it that the album had earlier belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden, who bequeathed it to Cardinal Decio Azzolini on her death in 1689. Azzolini died just two months later, and his estate passed on to his family, from whom Livio Odescalchi bought the album. The Queen Christina provenance, however, is not verifiable and remains a traditional assumption. The album stayed in the Odescalchi family until it was bought by Messrs Wildenstein in 1960. In 1968 it was purchased by Norton Simon. The drawings, which had been stuck to the album pages at each corner and in the centre edge of each margin, had begun to discolour in these places, and in order to prevent further discolouration from the glue it was decided, in 1970, to dismantle the album. These eight spots of discolouration are still discernible on our drawing, but they do not distract from its freshness nor from the poetic effect of the wash. Indeed, this remarkable freshness is characteristic of all the sheets of the album, and is in large due to the fact that the album has not been over-exposed to light. 

The Gallery’s drawing is one of three reddish-tinted sheets in the Wildenstein Album, and amongst only a handful of drawings done in this manner by Claude. Although many of the sheets from the album bear a fleur de lys watermark,7 M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Wildenstein Album, p. 5. this sheet is not watermarked at all. The verso has slight sketches of broad steps and an extended balustrade, but these comprise comparatively faint and insignificant markings. When it was first published in 1962 Rothlisberger gave it a date of c. 1660, observing that ‘this exquisite drawing combines the intimacy of a pastoral with the grandeur of a classical work’, and remarking on the ‘almost abstract rendering of the forms’.8 ibid., p. 16. In his 1968 catalogue raisonné Rothlisberger inclined to a slightly later date (1660–65),9 M. Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Drawings, p. 327. but in 1971 he admitted that dating was difficult, and placed it in the heroic years of the fifties.10 M. Roethlisberger, The Claude Lorrain Album, p. 24. This latter view is supported by Michael Kitson, who believes that the sheet belongs to the early 1650s.11 Letter to the author, 27 April 1981.

The pinkish wash, the narrow space, and the careful execution, all point to the fact that this is a finished pictorial drawing in its own right, not a study for a painting, and certainly not a sketch. Although the use of tinted ground is most commonly found in the forties, its use does extend into Claude’s later years. The wash is evenly applied over the whole sheet, but does seem lighter in the area of the clouds and around the distant mountains, though this may be due to some broadly applied white heightening in those places. Indeed the drawing’s pictorial character and painterly mixture of techniques makes it difficult to ascertain exactly how a particular effect was gained. The composition is simple, but constructed with infinite subtlety. Three major horizontal planes recede into the picture, with a vista showing a cluster of buildings set amid mountains in the right distance. The dark band of the foreground is separated from the trees by a narrow strip of light, against which are outlined, in almost countre-jour effect, the shoulders and head of a river god reclining in quiet repose. The dominant form in the composition is the large cluster of trees. Here, the underdrawing is done with black chalk applied in a light and feathery manner, with touches of brown wash mingling with the chalk, pen outline and some white heightening. The whole gives a wonderful effect of leafy branches suffused in the pink light of evening. This glowing atmospheric quality is one of the distinctive characteristics of Claude’s paintings, and it is here evoked in the most poetic way. We know from Sandrart and from the large number of Claude’s nature drawings that it was his practice to draw en plein air, and we are also told that ‘when he had well contemplated . . . [atmospheric colour] in the fields, he immediately prepared his colours accordingly, returned home and applied them to the work he had in mind.’12 M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, p. 48. In the studio this direct observation of forms and colour was transformed by Claude’s idealising impulse into a poetic distillation of the kind that we have in this sheet.    

The sheet is composed in a careful upward-moving progression from the heavily worked bottom band of vegetation, through the bushy trees to the gently billowing sky. The eye returns, however, to the antique river god. Just as the other figures that people his landscapes, the river god in this picture acts, in Lawrence Gowing’s words, as the ‘poetic expositor’ of the piece.13 Lawrence Gowing, ‘Nature and the Ideal in the Art of Claude’, Art Quarterly XXXVII, 1, 1974, p. 93. He is at a far remove from the directly observed forms on a sheet in the collection of the Madrid Biblioteca Nacional.14 Studies of a River God, c. 1635, coll. Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid; Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Drawings, no. 84 (illus.). Set in the midst of a strip of heavily delineated marshy vegetation (the firm foundation of the composition), he is placed in the lower centre of the sheet, with trees towering above him, their trunks angled in his direction. He is the personification of a pastoral, yet heroic, calm.   

Irena Zdanowicz, Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1982).   

Notes  

1         This, like all the pages from the Wildenstein Album, is an exceptionally well-documented drawing. All historical information in this note, including details of provenance, is taken from Marcel Rothlisberger’s publications: M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Wildenstein Album, Paris, 1962, no. 9: M. Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Drawings, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968, no. 877; M. Roethlisberger, The Claude Lorrain Album in the Norton Simon, Inc. Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971, no. 33. 

2          Μ. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Wildenstein Album, p. 10. 

3          M. Roethlisberger, The Claude Lorrain Album, p. 7.

4           ibid., p. 6. 

5          M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, New Haven, 1961, vol. I, pp. 73–76. 

6          ibid., pp. 53–62, for Baldinucci’s life of Claude, esp. p. 62. 

7           M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Wildenstein Album, p. 5. 

8           ibid., p. 16. 

9           M. Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Drawings, p. 327. 

10         M. Roethlisberger, The Claude Lorrain Album, p. 24. 

11         Letter to the author, 27 April 1981. 

12        M. Rothlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, p. 48. 

13        Lawrence Gowing, ‘Nature and the Ideal in the Art of Claude’, Art Quarterly XXXVII, 1, 1974, p. 93. 

14        Studies of a River God, c. 1635, coll. Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid; Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The Drawings, no. 84 (illus.).