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Louvre: Claude Gellée (Lorrain) – Ulysses returning Chryseis to her father (Marine, setting sun)

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Claude Gellée (Lorrain) - Ulysses returning Chryseis to her father (Marine, setting sun)

Richelieu wing – 2nd floor

The scene represents a port with emerald waters, lined with sumptuous palaces. Strange and anachronistic palaces such as Ulysses’ eyes never saw, which, however, saw so many things: colonnades supporting terraces, marble steps with large steps leading to well paved quays, a kind of castle with several rows of floors ending in an octagonal tower plunging into the sea, all adorned with gardens whose cliff-shaped massifs are seen, a very curious mixture of Roman architecture, Italian renaissance and seventeenth-century style. This very decorative ensemble is completed, towards the horizon, by a dyke closing the port. In the waters of this magical harbor there hangs a great ship, quite like the ships on the high side of the Royal Navy, the masts laden with sails, and flying flags flying in the breeze; further on, is the fine silhouette of another ship entering the port. On the right, half hidden by the tall columns of a building, you can see the elegant bow of a third ship. Here and there, canoes loaded with passengers crisscross the water under the effort of the oars. On the platform, placed in the foreground, are tiny characters who seem to be more onlookers than traffickers. In this rather uncomplicated crowd one would search in vain for the scene from which the painting derives its title. Where is Ulysses? Where are Chryseis and the father to whom it is handed over? Claude Lorrain would doubtless have himself been prevented from saying so. Moreover, he cared little about it. He was only a landscaper, and the characters did not interest him; he did not know how to draw them; he left the Flemish Jan Miel or the Italian Filippo Lauri the task of grouping them or painting them. The titles? He also abandons them to his collaborators who choose them as they wish. But what belongs to him in his own right, which no painter has possessed to the same degree, is the secret of this light that vibrates in his paintings, it is the inimitable art with which he colors with flames, morning or twilit, the ridge of the palaces or the surface of the waters. “In his navies,” writes M. Raymond Bouyer, “wave, architecture, and vegetation combine magnificently with the most harmonious decoration: from the depths of the canvas, the splendor vibrates, and the wave reflects and squeezes it – a happy illusion the perspective -between the dull foliage and the sparkling marble! A poet has defined this scenery “the path of the sun”. The sun is the true subject of his work, invisible or present. He is the perpetually worshiped god, without flattery of court, without servile allusion to the Sun-King, who does not yet shine at Versailles… Rubens had not already mingled the star of the day with the phantasmagoria of his beautiful sketches? But Claude is the soul of its favorite effects, its unrivaled creation, this rich seaport, against the light, where the wave lends itself to all the vagaries of refraction.”

This brilliant artificer of the sunlight remains an exception in the history of painting. His radiant apotheoses remained inimitable. And the most curious thing is that this incomparable painter was an ignorant man all his life; he could barely know how to sign his paintings. Born of very poor parents, in a small village of Lorraine, Claude Gellée does not announce, as child, great qualities of intelligence. Since he does not learn anything at school, his father lets him enter as an apprentice at a “pastry baker”, what we now call a pastry chef. When he knows his condition, he leaves for Rome with a troop of cooks and pastry-cooks from Lorraine, highly esteemed in Italy. He does not succeed and soon finds himself without a place. He is in the deepest distress when, happily, a Roman painter, Augustinus Tassus, takes him to his service and entrusts him with the care of the kitchen and the household. Claude is a servant: he dresses the horse, crushes the colors, cleans the palette and washes the brushes. As his master is a good man, he allows Claude to try his hand at painting; he teaches her a little perspective, but the drawing repels the apprentice. Besides, even in his art, he will never be a scholar. “More colourist than draftsman, he understands aerial perspective better than linear perspective and the nuance of the atmosphere than the geometry of lines.”

Claude Gellée, (whom his origin has nicknamed Lorrain) spent most of his life in Rome, like Poussin, whose friend he was. Fame and favor went faster to the first than to the second: while Poussin earned relatively little money, Claude made a great fortune.

At the same time with wealth, Lorrain owes to Italy’s skies the best of its art. “Let him discover infinite perspectives bathed in the diaphanous air of twilights or dawns, which he projects into an emerald bay the image of majestic sailboats or marble palaces, which he finally realizes on his canvases the sparkling hymen of the sky and the sea, Lorrain, by the way he interprets the light and balances outlines, leaves a luminous trace of which a reflection has been perpetuated to us.”

Ulysses returning Chryseis to her father was painted by Lorrain about 1646, for M. de Liancourt, and was acquired by Louis XIV.

Height: 1.19 – Width: 1.50 – Figures: 0.17.

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