'Sir Joshua Reynolds used to say that there would be another Rafaelle before there would be another Claude. His landscapes have all that is exquisite and refined in art and nature. Everything is moulded into grace and harmony; temples and groves, and winding glades and scatttered hamlets, rise up in never-ending succession, under the azure sky and the resplendent sun...' (Benjamin Robert Haydon and William Hazlitt, Painting and the Fine Arts, Edinburgh, 1838, pp. 35-6).
'Pure as Italian air, calm, beautiful and serene springs forward the works and with them the name of Claude Lorrain. The golden orient or the amber-coloured ether, the midday ethereal vault and fleecy skies, resplendent valleys, campagnas rich with all the cheerful blush of fertilization, trees possessing every hue and tone of summer's evident heat, rich, harmonious, true and clear, replete with all the aerial qualities of distance, aerial lights, aerial colour...' (Joseph Mallord William Turner, Royal Academy lecture, 1811, quoted by J. Ziff, '"Backgrounds, Introduction of Architecture and Landscape"--Lecture Delivered by J.M.W. Turner on February 12, 1811 at the Royal Academy', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXVI, 1963, pp. 144-5).
'His art is subtle, elusive, hard to describe in words but marvellously clear to the eye. Itself subjective, it invites a subjective response. Moreover it repays the patience expended on studying it by lasting, by being--as Constable said of a copy of Claude he was making--"something to drink at again and again". In the last analysis, the virtue of a painting by Claude depends on sheer quality: of eye, craftsmanship and mind'. (Michael Kitson, The Art of Claude Lorrain, London, 1969, pp. 5-7).
This picture is an eloquent and harmonious example of an ideal landscape--an image of nature more beautiful and better ordered than nature itself--by the greatest exponent of the genre. Although the form had been created in the Venetian school of the early 16th century, it was Claude who, by adding effects studied from nature and using light to unify his compositions, brought it, over a century later, to its highest point of refinement.
Born in a village near Nancy in the then independent Duchy of Lorraine, Claude was the son of small country property owners, but moved, possibly as early as 1617, at the age of 12 or 13, to Rome, where his first biographer Joachim von Sandrart records him as working as a pastry cook (see M. Kitson, in J. Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art, London, 1996, VII, p. 389). He soon moved to Naples, where he studied for two years under the landscape painter Goffredo Wals, returning to Rome to join the workshop of the landscape and architectural painter Agostino Tassi. In 1625, according to his second biographer, Filippo Baldinucci, Claude returned to Lorraine where he was employed by Claude Deruet, court painter to the Duke, and where he stayed for a year before going back to Rome, where he was to remain, except for short trips elsewhere in Italy, for the rest of his long and highly productive life.
Like the vast majority of Claude's oeuvre, this canvas would have been painted in Rome. Although the last two digits of the date on the picture are hard to decipher, they seem to read '34'. Roethlisberger (loc. cit.) had suggested a dating to 'c. 1637', but now believes that 1634 would make perfect sense as the date of execution, which would also explain why it is not illustrated in the Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth) in which--but only after 1635--Claude made drawn copies of virtually all his paintings before they left the studio.
A smaller variant of this picture exists, that had been bought by Cardinal Leopold de' Medici (1617-1675) from an unknown source and is now in the Uffizi, Florence. Apparently in very compromised condition, the latter was etched by Claude and shows differences to the present picture in, for example, details of the trees on the left and the presence of two fighting goats in the right foreground. As Roethlisberger (private communication) has pointed out, the present canvas would thus predate the loosely comparable Landscape with rural Dance (Liber Veritatis 13, collection of the Earl of Yarborough), but nevertheless postdate such astonishing works as the Kimbell Museum Coast scene with Europa and the Bull of 1634, that is one of a handful of masterpieces painted too early to be recorded in the Liber Veritatis.
The quality of Claude's art, as Michael Kitson has observed, relied on the refinement and sensitivity of his technique. Like many 17th-century artists, he used a white ground and laid over that a secondary ground, which varied in tone and colour according to the tones and colours to be employed in the final layer. Claude's build-up of the paint surface was gradual and done in numerous thin, semi-transparent layers, resulting, as here, in an extraordinarily subtle modulation of light and colour in his pictures. His technique also made his work vulnerable to deterioration and so the fine state of conservation of this picture is particularly remarkable.
Claude's influence on later work has been far-reaching. Just as, in the later 1630s and 1640s, important patrons and collectors started to acquire his work, so artists began imitating it. Dutch artists living in Rome, such as Herman van Swanevelt and Jan Both, took elements of Claude's style back to Northern Europe, while Italians like Salvator Rosa and Angeluccio, and, slightly later, the Frenchman Pierre Pater the Elder, were all influenced by his work. Neoclassical artists in the late 18th and early 19th century, such as Carlo Labruzzi, Jacob More, Jakob Philipp Hackert and Franz Kobell, picked up in their painting his emphasis on light as a unifying and harmonizing element. It was perhaps on British artists and indeed on British culture of this period that Claude had his most varied and far-reaching impact. As Kitson has observed, it affected landscape garden design, 18th century nature poetry and the literature of the Picturesque movement, as well as paintings in oil and watercolour. Artistic giants such as Constable, Samuel Palmer and, of course, Turner, owed a huge debt to the Frenchman. Turner responded strongly to Claude's naturalistic depiction of sunlight in his painting as well as to the notion of the ideal landscape as a vehicle for the expression of poetic ideas, and used these as a platform for the development of his own radical experimentation with colour and light. The fact that by 1830, according to Kitson, some two-thirds of Claude's pictures and drawings were in British collections was both a cause and a symptom of this impact.
This landscape was formerly owned by Welbore Ellis Agar (1735-1805), the younger brother of the 1st Viscount Clifden and the elder brother of the 1st Earl of Normanton. Agar assembled a prodigious collection of Old Masters, largely acquired abroad, for the most part under the aegis of Gavin Hamilton. Among the highlights of the collection, which numbered around 130 pictures, were Raphael's Madonna of the Veil (New Jersey, Princeton University Art Museum); Poussin's Achilles among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Boston Museum of Fine Arts); and Van Dyck's Virgin and Child with St. Catherine of Alexandria (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), as well as other pictures by Claude including a Landscape with Hagar and the Angel (Winterthur, the collection of Oskar Reinhart), and the pair of masterpiece landscapes Evening and Morning (still in the collection of the Duke of Westminster). On his death, having no direct heir, he bequeathed the collection to his two illegitimate sons Emmanuel Felix and Welbore Felix, who decided to put the collection up for sale at Christie's. The auction was scheduled for 2nd-3rd May 1806, with the present work appearing as lot 30 on the second day. However, before even the English copies of the catalogue were printed (only a French version exists), the brothers were approached by Lord Grosvenor with a view to an en bloc purchase. An initial price of 40,000 guineas was suggested but was negotiated down to the final figure of 30,000 guineas, which was agreed by mid-April, marking one of the largest single purchases of a picture collection transacted in this period.
The 2nd Earl Grosvenor, who in 1831 was created 1st Marquess of Westminster, was heir to a substantial property in Cheshire and to the Grosvenor Estate in London. He had already inherited his father's picture collection, which included the forty-two Old Masters purchased for him in Italy between 1758-9 by Richard Dalton, the librarian to the Prince of Wales, as well as commissions from the likes of Stubbs, West, Gainsborough and Hogarth, when in 1805 he acquired a new town house in London on Upper Grosvenor Street. This proved the catalyst for an extraordinary campaign of acquisition of works of art, the most conspicuous being the Ellis Agar collection. Much time and effort was put into devising the decorative schemes for the new Grosvenor House, which would provide a suitable setting for Lord Grosvenor's rapidly expanding collection. The walls were covered in red damask that had been salvaged from the old Eaton Hall, and the redecoration was finally completed by 1808. This picture is recorded in 1821 as hanging in the Drawing Room (see J. Young, loc. cit.).