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Work Perseus and the Origin of Coral

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

Persée et l'origine du corail

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Author(s):
Chabod Christine

This handsome, late work by Claude Lorrain is uniquely charming, exquisitely poetic and suffused with nostalgia. From around 1670, the ageing artist began to take pleasure in conjuring up memories of his youth, particularly his time in Naples between 1616 and 1621. This scene, set on the Bay of Naples, typifies Lorrain's artistry with its use of delicate silvery light, transforming a simple landscape into a truly magical vision.

A little-known Metamorphosis

Against the backdrop of a rugged expanse of rock, Pegasus stands motionless as Perseus advances towards Cupid, while nymphs play on a small promontory. To the left, a group of palms and other trees frame a view of the Bay of Naples, pervaded with a soft, strangely peaceful light. The origin of this scene is a seldom-illustrated passage from Book IV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, describing how Perseus created coral. Having slain the Medusa, one of the three Gorgons, whose gaze turned all who saw her to stone, Perseus witnessed the birth of the winged white horse Pegasus, who sprang from her blood. Mounted on Pegasus with the Medusa's head in a sack, Perseus flew over an island where he saw Andromeda chained to a cliff and threatened by a sea-monster. Perseus slew the monster, freed Andromeda and began washing the creature's blood from his hands, placing the Medusa's head on some seaweed at the water's edge as he did so. The Medusa's blood turned the seaweed into a red stone - coral. Delighted with the effect, the nymphs soaked other algae in the blood, to make more.

A learned patron

The Louvre drawing is one of a series of six preparatory studies - others are in the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne, the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York - tracing the evolution of the figures and the overall composition of Claude Lorrain's painting Perseus and the Origin of Coral, now in a private collection in the UK. The painting was executed in 1674 for Cardinal Massimi, whose collection already included a drawing by Nicolas Poussin illustrating the same theme (now in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle). It seems likely that the learned cardinal himself suggested the picture's unfamiliar iconography.

Moonlight or sunrise?

This fine drawing gave Claude Lorrain an opportunity to explore his subject in terms of color and light. Here, he places the light source towards the center of the picture, just above the horizon with rays emanating across the water. The nymphs are summarily portrayed, and the pervading atmosphere has led commentators to speculate about the time of day represented. Could this be a nocturnal, moonlit scene? The artist rarely worked in this genre and unfortunately the drawing, whose color balance and light have altered considerably over the centuries, provides no clearly identifiable clues. There is little in the picture to suggest the effect of sunlight, although the inventory made after Cardinal Massimi's death in 1677 describes it as a sunrise.

Bibliography

L. Demonts, Catalogue des dessins de Claude Gellée dit le Lorrain, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1923, no. 56.
M. Roethlisberger, Claude Lorrain: The drawings, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968, no. 1065.
J.-Fr. Méjanès, in Le Paysage en Europe du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle : XCVe exposition du Cabinet des dessins, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1990, no. 28.
H. D. Russell, Claude Gellée dit Le Lorrain 1600-1682, exhibition catalogue, Washington, National Gallery of Art, Paris, Grand Palais, 1982-1983, no. 70 pp. 287-290.
J.-Fr. Méjanès, in Des mécènes par milliers : un siècle de dons par les Amis du Louvre, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1997, no. 270.

Technical description

  • Claude Gellée, also known as Claude Lorrain (Chamagne 1600 - Rome 1682)

    Statuettes of crouching rams

    C. 4000 BC

  • Soapstone

    H. 25.4 cm; W. 32.2 cm

  • Acquired in 1987

    404601

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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Additional information about the work

Bottom left: Claudio fecit