Claude Lorrain, ‘An extensive landscape with figures dancing and others resting under a tree in the foreground, their cattle resting beyond’, Christie's Old Masters

Born to poverty in Lorraine around 1604, orphaned early and barely educated (he trained as a pastry chef), Claude traveled to Rome as a servant around 1618; through assiduous study and near constant sketching in the Roman countryside, he would forge an original genre of pastoral landscape and transform himself into the most successful landscape painter in Europe, with commissions from the Pope, the French ambassador and the King of Spain. By the later 1640s, at the pinnacle of his career, Claude established a vision of landscape that was grand, if not sublime: sweeping, orderly and dignified, but also lush, atmospheric and full of small and unexpected delights. Pure as Italian air, observed the British painter J-M-W Turner in 1811, calm, beautiful and serene springs forward the works and with them the name of Claude Lorrain.

The rural dance is the only elaborately worked up theme that occurs repeatedly in Claude's youthful production of the 1630s: in eight paintings (including the present one), three etchings and several drawings. The first painting on this theme is likely a canvas in the Saint Louis Art Museum which probably dates from the early 1630s; the best-known versions of the subject are a smaller canvas purchased by Cardinal Leopold de'Medici in the 17th century, which has been in the Uffizi since 1796; and a variant of approximately the size of the present painting that formerly belonged to the Duke of Westminster (Christie's, London, 7 December 2010, lot 51, sold $2,057,250). As Roethlisberger has observed, the present painting is more generous in the space it provides for the dancing figures and approaches the scene from a higher viewpoint than either the Uffizi or Westminster canvases. Our painting, he believes, preceded those pictures and served as their model for the figures. The number and arrangement of figures varies in each composition, but all of them include a dancing couple dressed in colorful Italian peasant costume, with music-making onlookers.

The setting sun, partially hidden by trees on the left, tints the sky a golden yellow, and the overall effect is of the charming and happy dancers overwhelmed and dwarfed by majestically rising trees, expansive landscape and open sky. The composition with a central group of trees in the middle distance occurs in other paintings by Claude in the early 1630s, notably the famous Pastoral Landscape in Rotterdam.

The painting and its variants predate the inception of the Liber Veritatis, and a copy of it is not included in that record book of Claude's compositions; however, the artist's own etching, Landscape with Country Dance, which exists in multiple states, is closely related to the present painting.

Munich, Haus der Kunst, Im Light von Claude Lorrain, 1983, no. 3 (entry by M. Roethlisberger).
Tokyo, Museum of Western Art, Claude Lorrain and the Ideal Landscape, 1998, no. 25.

M. Roethlisberger, 'Additional Works by Goffredo Wals and Claude Lorrain', The Burlington Magazine, 121, no. 910, January 1979, p. 24, fig. 33.

Private collection, England.

About Claude Lorrain

The French painter Claude Lorrain (born Claude Gellée and often referred to simply as Claude) became the leading landscape painter in Italy during his lifetime. He began his career in Rome, where he trained under Agostino Tassi, who contributed to his interest in perspective. Known for his poetic use of light, Claude painted elegantly composed landscapes in the glow of dawn or early evening, layering semi-transparent oil paint onto his canvas. One of his favourite compositions, which he pioneered, was the idealized harbour scene, flanked by palaces and classical ruins and with luminous light effects reflected on the water’s surface. In 1635 he began the Book of Truth, documenting sales and patrons so as to safeguard against the forgery of his work; containing 200 etchings of Claude’s paintings, the book became an important work of art in its own right.

French, 1604-1605 - 1682, Vosges, France, based in Rome, Italy