UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise – The classical landscape

I have reached Landscape, the final project of this course. We start with Classical Landscape, a genre virtually invented, or at least perfected, by Claude Lorrain. The landscape was painted not as a setting for a mythological scene or a distant view through a window in the background of a work, but as an idyllic pastoral scene. This was a tamed countryside, inhabited by small figures who help the viewer enter the scene. There may be a classical temple or a rustic village, but the eye is gently drawn to distant mountains and the luminous sky.

The OCA course notes quote Kenneth Clark in his book Landscape into Art (1949). Below are two works by Lorrain, both currently on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, combined with shaded diagrams to illustrate Clark’s description of Claude’s customary compositional scheme.

Claude Lorrain Pastoral Landscape 1636 - 1637 oil on copper 27.9 x 34.7 cm

Claude Lorrain Pastoral Landscape 1636 – 1637 oil on copper 27.9 x 34.7 cm

Claude Lorrain The goatherd 1636     print - etching      12.8 x 19.9 cm

Claude Lorrain
The goatherd
1636 print – etching 12.8 x 19.9 cm

From Clark: [The scheme] “… involved a dark coulisse on one side (hardly ever on two), the shadow of which extended across the first plane of the foreground, a middle plane with a large central feature, usually a group of trees, and finally two planes, one behind the other, the second being that luminous distance for which he has always been famous…”.

On the right in The goatherd above we see a tree like flat scenery at the side of a stage (a coulisse), casting its shadow (marked “1”). The first plane is colourful and in light rather than shadowed in Pastoral Landscape. In both works a herdsman can be seen sitting on a tree root and playing music.

A middle plane (“2”), including trees as a central large feature, is used in both works.

There are buildings and water reflecting light in the third plane of each work. In The goatherd what may be a classical temple can be glimpsed on the left. In Pastoral Landscape there is a mill including a water wheel on the right, and a village can be seen on the horizon.

The final plane of luminous distance, a glowing sky, is present in both painting and etching.

This feels quite disrespectful, distilling an artists work into a dry formula – but that takes the description out of context. I have skimmed through Clark’s book (I will be glad to complete this course, when I might finally have more time for reading!), and he presents Claude as “the true heir to the poetry of Giorgione” (Clark, p. 62). Clark notes Claude’s rich observation, subtle tonality, delicacy, visual responsiveness, sense of light. Claude sketched from nature – observations of details, and ideas for compositions – did studies for pictures, then painted the works themselves. For Clark the paintings are “exquisite poetry”, with “never a false note”. Critically, “Claude could subordinate all his powers of perception and knowledge of natural appearances to the poetic feeling of the whole” and “in spite of his extreme formality, nothing in Claude is a formula”. (Clark, p. 64).

The works I have shown above are from Claude’s earlier work. Clark refers to works painted by Claude later in life as his “greatest poems”, including the series The Times of the Day now in The Hermitage. I can’t show them here, but go to, do a quick search on “Claude Lorrain”, then look at Landscape with Jacob, Rachel and Leah at the Well (1666), Landscape with the rest on the Flight into Egypt (1661), Landscape with Tobias and the Angel (1663), and Landscape with Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1672). These show scenes at morning, noon, evening and night respectively. All generally follow the compositional formula, but none completely. They are much larger than the works I have seen in Sydney, and the photos on the internet just leave me hungry to see the works in person. I think you could find yourself standing within that beautiful, serene, golden world.

The OCA Exercise calls for a full annotation of at least one image. I have chosen Pastoral Landscape as it is the one painting I have seen in person.

Claude Lorrain Pastoral Landscape 1636 – 1637 oil on copper 27.9 x 34.7 cm

Claude Lorrain
Pastoral Landscape
1636 – 1637 oil on copper 27.9 x 34.7 cm

The painting shows a goatherder at rest by a river or lake, playing his pipes as his charges (including a stray cow) graze and butt heads. A mill with waterwheel can be seen, and in the distance a hilltop town. The scene is serene, bathed in crepuscular light – although whether dawn or dusk I can’t tell (I’ve seen both suggested in the literature).

The work is an unusual octagonal shape, and for that reason has been known as the “Diamond Claude”. It is painted on copper, which although not common is not unique in Claude’s earlier work. A particular benefit seems to be that the work is very well preserved.

lorrain_04A general discussion of Claude’s use of receding planes in his images is included above. In addition to this it is interesting to consider Claude’s use of lines. The overall impression given by the image is that the horizontal dominates. The image is peaceful and calm. On closer examination, the proportions of the work accentuate the horizontal, but there are no actual horizontal lines. There are a few verticals, indicated in purple, but otherwise we see a jumble of angles. A staff at the front, indicated in light blue, leads our eyes into the scene. The trees of the second plane go in a variety of directions. One result is to frame the waterwheel and associated buildings on the right. Another result is an overall balance, trees leaning to both left and right, providing interest and a dynamic quality yet combining to a sense of stillness. A series of “peaks”, shown in green, have a similar effect. They appear across the image, in stones, mountains, figure etc, creating an overall harmony or uniformity to the scene without being dull or drab.

lorrain_05These elements and others also work together to guide our gaze around the image, moving from plane to plane. In the example shown we enter the work at the staff lying on the ground in the centre. It directs us up to the goatherder. His pipes move our eyes higher, to the waterwheel. Following a line parallel to the tree above, we arrive at the peak of a distant mountain, almost hidden but just visible through a “convenient” space in the trees. We follow the slope of the mountain down to the village silhouetted on the hills, then drift down across the mellow waters to the interest of the goats at play.

lorrain_06Although there is the overall golden glow for which Claude is well known, there are also some strong, clear colours. The goatherder’s cap is bright red. His trousers include a clear blue. To me these seemed dischordant, unsettling and distracting. One effect was that it had me hunting for other colours, questioning whether my first impression was accurate. There are some lovely deep greens in the waters behind the herder, and sparkles of white in the water falling from the wheel. The sky glows golden, but also lifts up to gentle blues.

I’ve noted a similar burst of colour in figures seen in some of the Hermitage works mentioned above. Is it a simple reflection of “reality” (if there is such a thing in this arcadian dream), or indicating that the figures remain distinct, not quite merged and at home in the country, or perhaps just a means of bringing the eye to these significant objects?

As well as giving us a way to imagine ourselves into the landscape, the figures provide an entry to a narrative – not the whole story, but hints. Perhaps there is not too much more in the goatherder than a pastoral idyll, but the small figures in the Hermitage works reference dramatic moments in biblical history, man pitted against other men, against god, or against himself. Neil MacGregor wrote that the figures and other hints “stimulate us to become part of a narrative that deals with the great passions of life, moral and emotional dilemmas, the death and birth of empires” (MacGregor, 1994, p. 9).

Beyond the narrative, the figures and the signs of man in buildings indicate that this classical landscape is not wild. “It is man-centered in the sense that it reflects a view of nature adjusted to human intelligence and human needs” wrote Kitson (1969, p. 7). One could claim that it is so well-adjusted that it is a form of escapism – no such landscape ever existed. Honour and Fleming point out that “Claude’s landscapes were bought by kings, notably Philip IV of Spain, and the aristocracy of Europe – patrons of a different type and class from the intellectuals, lawyers and officials who admired Poussin’s more intellectually demanding work” (Honour and Fleming, 2009. p.587). In a period where established authority – monarchy and aristocracy as well as the church – continued to be challenged by intellectuals and the rising middle class, it would not be surprising if those who felt threatened should seek escape in a calm, idealized, pastoral world.

Tones vary smoothly through the picture. In the foreground, which almost looks like a stage, there is contrast between light and shadow, providing interest and attracting the eye. However it is soon led gently to the series of hills, the open space, and the light of the sky reflected in the waters. The distance is less detailed, less clear, the farthest hill is slightly blue to indicate the depth of the view. This use of aerial perspective is understated but very effective. Distance is also suggested by the reducing size and detail of elements. The placement of the buildings on the right suggest they are retreating into the background, but this seems more a result of the curve of the river bank rather than a use of linear perspective.

Miller (2007) explained “While painters traditionally squared their finished model drawings for transfer to a full-sized support, Claude used lines radiating from a point at the center of the sheet… His landscape were made up of successive planes of receding ground, and sometimes there are multiple vanishing points, particularly if the composition includes different levels. In this case a squared grid could have proven counter-productive, making it more difficult to avoid the sort of rigid linear design of the inferior practitioners. This looseness of perspective and design lays behind much of the unique quality of Claude’s landscapes.”

The picture is suffused with light. Kitson wrote of Claude’s works “the play upon surfaces of an infinitely gradated light make objects seem convincing and alive … Some forms appear against the light, others with the light partly shining through them, others again with the light reflected from them as highlights. But the boundaries between these categories are always fluid” (Kitson, 1969, p.8). It is the light which draws in the viewer and captures us.


Clark, K. (1949) Landscape into art London: John Murray

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Kitson, M. (1969) Introduction in Arts Council (1969) The Art of Claude Lorrain London: Arts Council of Great Britain

MacGregor, N. (1994) Forward in Wine, H. (1994) Claude: The poetic landscape London: National Gallery Publications

Miller, M. (2007) Claude Lorrain Landscape Drawings from the British Museum at the Clark [online] Available from (Accessed 14-Sept-2014)

UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise – The classical landscape
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project two: Landscape
Exercise – The classical landscape

1 Response to “UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise – The classical landscape”

  1. 1 UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise – Visit a landscape | Fibres of Being Trackback on September 19, 2014 at 7:53 pm

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