Lorrain was a prominent French artist of landscapes, who worked in Italy, producing a large body of over 200 works. Born Claude Gellée, he acquired the artistic surname of his birthplace, Lorraine in northeast France. While much of his young life is undocumented, it is said that after being orphaned at thirteen, his travels led him to Rome and Naples. Before this he lived with his brother Jean Gellée in Freiburg, Germany and began his artistry in creating designs for his brother’s woodcarving shop.
His earliest apprenticeship in painting was perhaps with the German landscape painter, Godfrey Waals in Naples, Italy. While in Rome, in 1625 he was taken under the wing of the Italian landscape painter Agostino Tassi (1578 – 1644). While training, Lorrain would also grind colors and undertook other household chores for Tassi. Lorrain traveled much after this period; said to have seen Italy, France and Germany and also worked back in Lorraine. There, he trained under Karl Dervent, the Duke’s Court painter, and in another apprenticeship with the French Baroque artist, Claude Deruet (1588 – 1660) in 1626.
Dissatisfied with his work under Dervent, Lorrain traveled back to Rome as soon as 1627, finding commissions under Cardinal Bentivoglio (1579 – 1644) and then with Pope Urban VIII (1568 – 1644). In these early works, Lorrain established a reputation as a talented landscape painter, as an artist who deeply understood the effects of light as laws of nature. Of course, his interpretation of this knowledge was artistic, and one he indulged other artists with, such as Joachim von Sandrart (1606 – 1688), a German portrait painter. Sandrart became an important source in revealing Lorrain’s life, as the artist himself did not leave much paper trail. That is, not much of one expect for his famous Liber Veritatis, his book of truth, which documented over fifty years of work from the mid-1630s on. The six-volume book contains a detailed sketch of every piece he painted and who he sold it to. The piece, belonging to the Duke of Devonshire’s collection, is on display at the British Museum and a cherished tome among landscape artists.
Another friendship Lorrain shared was with the French landscape painter, Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665), who he traveled some with in the Roman countryside. The distinction between the two artists’ work is often contrasted, as Lorrain’s work dwarfed human figures within the landscape and Poussin’s landscape was background to figures. Lorrain was so insecure about his skills in painting a human presence that he sometimes had other artists paint them for him. Of those known to grace the paintings of Lorrain with human figures was French painter, Jacques Courtois, called Il Borgognone (1621 – 1676) and the Italian Baroque painter, Filippo Lauri (1623 – 1694).
Lorrain’s style was immensely influential for centuries after, gaining him an honored attribution in the Claude Mirror (or Black Mirror), a reflective tool artists use to capture certain tones and colors, those Lorrain was famous for. Of his many works displayed throughout the world, the Uffizi Gallery houses an exemplary early piece, Port with Villa Medici (or Harbour with Villa Medici) dated from 1637.