This large and superbly well preserved drawing was entirely unrecorded until it was published by Marcel Roethlisberger in 1974, shortly before its sale at auction in Switzerland. Roethlisberger's description of the drawing began: 'On se sent d'emblée devant un chef-d'œuvre de l'art du dessin, qui nous est parvenu dans un état de fraicheur extraordinaire.' Even then, the emergence of such a substantial ‘unknown’ drawing was a significant event, as although Claude was a prolific draughtsman (Roethlisberger’s 1968 catalogue listed 1,129 drawings1), his enduring popularity has meant that the great majority of his drawings entered famous, well documented collections, primarily in England, at an early date, and many have since passed to museums (some 40% of Claude’s known drawings are in the British Museum). Relatively few major drawings by the artist remain in private hands, and only a tiny handful have come to auction in recent years.2
One of Claude’s most exceptional gifts as a draughtsman was his ability to balance grandeur and relative formality of structure with a spontaneity and ease of handling that gives even his most complex images a sublime, natural ease and grace. His ability to use the tones of his paper and his brown wash to create intense and perfectly balanced lighting schemes, though certainly much imitated, was also more or less unparalleled. Here, even though the composition seems much more immediate and spontaneous than is typical of the artist’s oil paintings, there can be no question that this is a drawing made as a finished work, for presentation or sale, rather than as a rapid sketch. The artist has signed it in full on the reverse, with an inscription that precisely identifies the location depicted. What might at first glance seem to be just a view across an anonymous river valley, with some ruins included as a visual device in the left foreground, is actually a very specific view of a significant location. The composition too is much less casually composed than one might at first think; the ruins are indeed used as a repoussoir, but the viewpoint is chosen with the greatest possible care, so that the forms of the river valley and the hills behind interact with the foreground in perfect rhythm, and even the flights of birds in the sky are meticulously placed so as to reinforce the leading diagonals of the composition.
Within this perfectly balanced compositional structure, it is Claude’s masterly use of wash that provides that light, and the essential serene atmosphere, that makes this such a transcendent image. Wash was perhaps the most powerful weapon in Claude’s visual arsenal, and in some remarkable cases, such as the superb sheet recently sold from the Oppé collection, or another view of the Tiber valley in an American private collection3, he made drawings entirely in wash, with no use at all of the pen. Both in those drawings in pure wash and in others, like this, where the artist has initially defined his composition in pen and ink, the areas of wash are generally very broad, and appear rather even in tone, yet thanks to incredibly subtle variations of density and form within these broad areas of wash, the drawing is imbued with light, movement and life, as well as intense, elegiac beauty.
Claude was born Claude Gellée, in the town of Chamagne, in Lorraine, but before his twelfth birthday his parents both died, and the young Claude made his way to Rome, where he received his first significant artistic training in the bottega of Agostino Tassi. He is also believed to have spent time in Naples, working with the German expatriate artist Goffredo Wals, and to have been back in his native Lorraine between 1625 and 1627, but after that he made Rome his permanent home. In the early 1630s he gained his first major commission, when he was hired, along with other artists, to make paintings for the Spanish King Philip IV’s palace at Buen Retiro, near Madrid, and then, towards the end of the decade, he was engaged by the Pope Urban VIII to make a number of paintings of Papal residences, including the one at Santa Marinella, along the coast to the north of Rome. This was the first of a long series of commissions that Claude received from various popes, cardinals and princes, which provided him with his livelihood for decades to come. It was also probably the occasion of his first extensive sketching tour outside the immediate environs of Rome.
The inscription on the reverse of this drawing, ‘Claudio Gellee IV Roma pasato Tivoli un mile [per] strada de sobiacha’, tells us that the location depicted is to be found one mile beyond Tivoli, on the road to Subiaco. According to Roethlisberger, the letters ‘IV’ in the inscription are an abbreviation for ‘in urbe’, and signify that the drawing was made not on the spot, but back in the artist’s studio in Rome, but in any case, it would have to be based on sketches made from nature. Indeed, a rapid sketch of the same ruin (fig. 1), though not from exactly the same viewpoint, is to be found on the reverse of a more elaborate drawing by Claude, now in the British Museum4, and it is very likely that similar swift, on-the-spot studies provided the basis for the present, much more elaborately worked up drawing.
In fact, the spot can be identified with total precision. The ruin to the left is a part of the Aqua Anio Novus, one of the mighty aqueducts constructed to bring fresh water to ancient Rome from the hills flanking the valley of the Aniene. The Aqua Anio Novus was begun by the Emperor Caligula in AD 38 and completed just over a decade later by Claudius.5 As Claude indicated, the part of the ruin seen here is to be found around a mile past Tivoli, along the Aniene valley, in the direction of Subiaco. The drawing is made looking away from the river, in a north-westerly direction, back towards Tivoli.
In 1642, Claude made another splendid drawing (fig. 2), of a less identifiable spot along the same road, which he conspicuously signed, dated and inscribed: Claudio / fecit / strada da Tivoli a /sobiacha l’anno / 1642 / il voag.6 The last part of this inscription is taken to signify that the drawing was made during (or possibly as a result of) a journey that the artist made to Subiaco, and Rothlisberger believes that the present drawing can plausibly be associated with the same journey, in terms of both subject matter and style. Stylistically, Claude’s drawings of this time combine very clear evidence of a delight in the close observation of nature with a mature assurance in compositional construction, and although it is invidious to speak of an artist’s ‘best’ period, this was certainly a moment when he was at the very height of his powers as a draughtsman, in every respect.
As something of an aside, it is perhaps interesting to note that although this seems to be the earliest known image of this particular section of ruined aqueduct, it was, as Roethlisberger has described, subsequently painted and drawn by many of the artists following in Claude’s footsteps, until late in the 19th century.7 In the 17th century, various Dutch artists who worked in Italy included this picturesque ruin in their compositions, notably Willem van Bemmel, who painted it several times.8 Thereafter, the view seems for a while to have been less favoured, and cannot be found in the works of the leading 18th-century artists from Italy or northern Europe who depicted the region, such as Locatelli, Fragonard, Robert, Wilson or Hackert, but it reappears in the early 19th century, notably in the work of the Basel artist Jakob Christoph Miville (1786-1836). Perhaps most intriguingly, in 1832 the American Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole made several drawings and watercolours of this noble ruin9, and included it as the focal motif in a major painting, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (fig. 3).10 Cole was, though, heavily influenced by Claude – something he himself freely admitted – and indeed may even have rented the same studio in Rome that was used, two centuries earlier, by his illustrious predecessor, so this resurgent interest in the views depicted by Claude should not come as a great surprise. Even today the ruin remains immediately recognisable as the one shown in Claude’s magisterial drawing, although it has by now lost its lower arch, and has a road running through it (fig. 4).
Although the drawing was unrecorded until 1974, there is at least some evidence relating to its earlier provenance. The sheet itself is inset within a fine paper border – in much the same way as the sheets of the Liber Veritatis were, following their engraving by Richard Earlom in the 1770s – and this border bears the distinctively written initials CL, together with a further inscription below, now cut. As Marcel Roethlisberger has kindly informed us, some 26 drawings by or formerly attributed to Claude in the same 1974 Kornfeld sale as the Barnet drawing11 were similarly mounted and inscribed, the additional inscription in most cases reading ‘Tasa 2 Rs.’ Roethlisberger interprets this inscription as meaning ‘price 2 Reales,’ a Reale being a Spanish currency in use until 1864, and therefore concludes that the Barnet drawing and others that are similarly inscribed were in the possession of a Spanish dealer, probably in the 18th or early 19th century.
This drawing has not been seen in public since it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum some 40 years ago, and the occasion of this sale therefore provides the first opportunity in a long generation to study and appreciate its exceptional qualities. Historically resonant, elegant in composition and brilliant yet understated in the handling of the media, it epitomises Claude’s accomplishments in the field of drawing, at a moment when he was riding a wave of critical acclaim and professional success. It is also, on a much more essential level, quite simply a profoundly satisfying and beautiful drawing to behold.
1. Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain, The Drawings, 2 vols., Berkeley 1968
2. Most notably the one sold, New York, Christie’s, 31 January 2013, lot 122 ($6,130,000), and that sold from the Oppé collection, London, Sotheby’s, 5 July 2016, lot 41.
3. Roethlisberger, op. cit., 1968, no. 425
4. London, British Museum, inv. Oo,6.86 (verso); Roethsliberger, op. cit., 1968, no. 664
5. For further information on the aqueduct, see T. Ashby, The Aqueducts of Ancient Rome, Oxford 1935
6. London, British Museum, inv. Oo,6.72; Roethsliberger, op. cit., 1968, no. 483
7. Roethlisberger, cit., 1985
8. Ibid., pp. 303-4, fig. 4
9. Including three now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, reproduced by Roethlisberger op. cit., 1985, figs 11-13
10. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 03.27 (As ‘A view near Tivoli (Morning)’)
11. Including lots 63, 67-70; emailed communication of 29 November 2017
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