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On The Making Of A Durable World, Part Two

Is there something universal in landscape painting?

As I was working on my last column, "On the Making of a Durable World," another instance of that rare aesthetic experience of transcending the distance that separates one generation from another, creating a common, enduring world, unexpectedly visited me. This time, it wasn't so much my own personal sensation as it was the vicarious experience of reading about a writer's intense awareness of seeing and feeling what an artist, centuries before, had seen and felt. Leafing through Henry James's Italian Hours, in search of his impressions of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, I stumbled upon a startlingly beautiful passage inspired by the author's rides on horseback in the "campagna" just outside of Rome, where he meditates on what he called the "reflective" life. For him, it was another name for the "aesthetic and 'esoteric' life."

Although I have never strolled or driven, let alone ridden on horseback, through the countryside around Rome, James's vivid portrayal of his delightful rides transported me there in imagination. Reading James today here in New York, after more than 130 years have passed between us, I could still hear "the disembodied voice of the lark," feel the "languor" of "the Roman air," see the flowers that "multiply and the deep blues and purples of the hills, turning to azure and violet," all of which incited in me a deep longing to view Mount Soracte, which "rises from its blue horizon like an island from the sea and with an elegance of contour which no mood of the year can deepen or diminish." I didn't know this mountain with its dissonant though beckoning name, yet James's lyrical appreciation of it conjured before me Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire, its violet-dappled, azure mass looming upward as the sky, mottled green and turquoise and mauve and cream, stretched downward to meet it. Apparently, I wasn't alone in my ignorance; a footnote informed the reader, "Part of the chain that borders the Roman plain as the Sabine mountains, Soracte, also known as Soratte, is unnoted or sparely noted by many modern guidebooks, although nineteenth-century travelers compared it to Gibraltar and made it a popular outing."

As is often the case when I read about the Rome that for centuries had been the most cherished destination of "the Grand Tour," I felt an enormous and terrible gap open up between our modern, deracinated world and this earlier, classically rooted one. My having paused at the footnote, which interrupted the rhythm of James's reverie, made the sentence that followed all the more jarring: "You know it well, you have seen it often in the mellow backgrounds of Claude." For me, James's word picture had evoked Cezanne, but it was perfectly natural for James and his first readers to think of Claude Lorrain, for, as I knew from my work on the picturesque sensibility, Claude's landscapes had made him a favorite of cultivated travelers and art lovers through James's time, although even as James penned these words in the early 1870s a revolution in taste inaugurated by Turner was already displacing Claude in the aesthetic imagination. Where just a few years earlier I would have had only the faintest impression of Claude in mind, now I did know his paintings well enough to imagine just the kind of pastoral landscape James had delighted in seeing.

Remembering the long romance of art lovers with Claude, whose undeniably beautiful paintings have always left me somewhat cold, I was able to recalibrate my vision and, at least for the moment, lose myself in James's sensibility, a sensibility so thoroughly art-saturated that he could say: "You begin to take your saddle for a faded old arm-chair in a palace gallery. A month's rides in different directions will show you a dozen prime Claudes"--reminding me of what an artist friend had said to my husband and me as we were setting out on a trip to Tuscany for the first time a number of years ago, "Driving through the hill towns is like driving through landscapes in Renaissance paintings that you will be seeing in museums." In the very next sentence, this sentiment lands James and his reader in an actual gallery, the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, before "two famous specimens" by Claude, which, in turn, puts James--and the reader vicariously--in that rare aesthetic state of seeing and enjoying exactly what Claude, two centuries before him, had experienced when he first painted these bucolic scenes, even as James knows well that Claude's vision has prepared his own, through a conjunction of memory and sensibility, to see the campagna as if it were composed like a painting, literally, in the picturesque style. James thus spoke of how "delightful" it was "to feel the common element in one's own sensibility and those of a genius whom that element has helped to do great things." And then he provided one of the clearest expressions of how a common world is formed through art:

    Claude must have haunted the very places of one's
    personal preference and adjusted their divine undulations
    to his splendid scheme of romance, his view of the poetry
    of life. He was familiar with aspects in which there wasn't a
    single uncompromising line. I saw a few days ago a small
    finished sketch from his hand ... which was almost startling
    in its clear reflection of forms, unaltered by the two centuries
    that have dimmed and cracked the paint and canvas.

I now longed to see with my own eyes all that James had so beautifully drawn in words and also to see if I, too, having now imaginatively entered into James's sensibility, could partake in the vision of Claude, which had so shaped the way art-minded people perceived the natural world from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. So I did what any other twenty-first-century aesthete would do and went to the Internet in search of the paintings and drawings that James had admired. I had no trouble finding the Landscape with Dancing Figures (1647) mentioned in a footnote as one of the Claudes that James would have viewed at the Doria Pamphilj. It is still there, though I was disappointed to find only it on the gallery's website, where James had spoken of "two famous specimens." (Had the other been sold or turned out not to be a Claude?) Looking at the picture on my screen--drastically reduced in scale and deprived of its texture and nuance--I could nonetheless make out Mount Soracte small and blurred in the distance, and to my surprise, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the distinctive outline of Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire. It turned out that James had described and no doubt had seen the mountain just as it appeared in the background of this Claude--"ris[ing] from its blue horizon like an island from the sea." And it appeared in precisely this poetic guise in many other Claudes that I viewed as I moved rapidly, and with a dizzying effect, from museum site to museum site on the Internet. But when I lingered before brighter-than-real-life reproductions of paintings that I have seen here at the Met or at the National Gallery in London, I could no longer keep at bay the powerful memory of my actual experience before a Claude--how remote, even alien, his perfectly balanced, Arcadian worlds seemed to my modern eye, accustomed as it is to the more wild, fugue-like, dissolving landscapes of Turner and C?zanne, but also of Van Gogh and Seurat and Monet and Kiefer.

Perhaps I would do better with his sketches, I thought, but to my disappointment, I couldn't easily locate any on the Internet. When I typed into Google "roman campagna," the elegant contour of Soracte, now that I had become aware of it, appeared to me over and over again--still in its poetic Claudian guise of an island rising from the sea--in the far distance of drawings of the young Turner before he became the Turner of magnificent light, atmosphere, and motion, that is, when he was still composing picturesque Italian landscapes with trees right out of Claude in the foreground with titles like Mount Soracte in the Roman Campagna. I was a little sorry to find this famous mountain beginning to lose its Claudian look when, in a plein-air painting by Corot with the still Claude-besotted name, The Roman Campagna with the Claudian Aqueduct (1826), it appeared as a marker of distance clearly delineated between an enormous, light-filled, tumultuous blue sky and a flat, golden field strewn with classical remains.

And then when I came upon an early, oval-shaped, albumen print by the Scottish photographer Robert Macpherson, I saw that Claude's long-beloved picturesque principles of composition were being left behind. Although the photograph bears the old, familiar name, The Campagna Near Rome (1850s), it contained an entirely new vision--a flat, dark silvery field in the foreground cut by a slowly receding horizon line of ancient aqueducts in ruin, with Soracte barely discernible except as a hazy, gray, spectral shape far off in the distance. This picture, even with all of its telling marks of nineteenth-century photography, was closest in time to James, so I wondered, was I now seeing what the Roman campagna, at least through an early camera lens, actually looked like when James made his glorious rides through it? But just as this question occurred to me, another image appeared on my screen: I found myself staring in wonder at a modern-day, color photograph of Mount Soracte that resembled nothing so much as the plein-air landscape by Corot. And with that, I turned the computer off.

I returned to James where I had left off--with him reflecting on the common world that Claude's small finished sketch had created between them--only to read, in the sentences directly following, sentiments, strange and beautiful, that amazingly gave some order to my disorienting adventure with images of the Roman campagna on the Internet:

    This unbroken continuity of the impressions I have tried
    to indicate is an excellent example of the intellectual
    background of all enjoyment in Rome. It effectually prevents
    pleasure from becoming vulgar, for your sensation rarely
    begins and ends with itself; it reverberates--it recalls,
    commemorates, resuscitates something else. At least half the
    merit of everything you enjoy must be that it suits you absolutely;
    but the larger half here is generally that it has suited someone
    else and that you can never flatter yourself you have discovered
    it. It has been addressed to some use a million miles out of your
    range, and has had great adventures before ever condescending
    to please you.

Was this the idea or, better yet, the actual experience of the classic that I have, for so many years now, been seeking? Not the immortality of the artist or at least of his name through the persistence of his work over time; not the transcendence of distance through later viewers' impressions that a classic speaks to them so directly it is as if it were made especially for them; but rather the keeping alive, by inhabiting the sensibility of others in imagination, an ever-reverberating tradition that "recalls, commemorates, resuscitates something else." I felt, for the moment, content to rest with this pleasing thought. But I still had the feeling to see more Claudes, so I went to my bookcase, only to realize that I had no book of his pictures, though fortunately I did have that old, reliable war-horse Key Monuments of the History of Art by Horst W. Janson. (Mine, which my husband inherited from a friend of his older sister's who had used it in a college survey course, is from 1959.) The index listed only one reference to Claude, which surprised me, and when I turned to it, I could not believe my eyes. In the top half of the page was printed "Chapter 23: The Seventeenth Century in France, England, and Spain"; and on the bottom half was a black-and-white reproduction of a wash drawing by Claude, View of the Campagna (c. 1650) that, at least at first glance, was as close to a Mont Sainte-Victoire watercolor of Cezanne's as anything not made by his own hand could be. Which made me think that perhaps there is, after all, something universal and transparent in the metaphysics of landscape painting, for how else was it possible for Claude to perceive what we now miraculously see in a Cezanne landscape centuries before Cezanne ever dared to create one?

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein