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Work The Adoration of the Golden Calf

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

L'Adoration du Veau d'or

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Grollemund Hélène

This magnificent, large drawing is the most complete preparatory study for The Adoration of the Golden Calf - a 1653 painting destined for Carlo Cardelli, which can today be seen at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe. The counterpart to the painting is Jacob, Laban, and His Daughters. In 1660, Claude Gellée would return to this subject again (Manchester Art Gallery).

Fidelity put to the test

On the right, at the edge of a wood, encircled by prostrate Israelites, a priest makes a sacrifice on a small altar. In the center, before a distant watering place, surrounded by mountains and a cloudy sky, the young Israelite women dance along, holding hands. To the left, in the middle distance, a cluster of sturdy trees rises up against a background of high, rocky mountains. The episode is drawn from the Old Testament (Exodus 32:1): Moses, returning from Mount Sinai having received the Tables of the Law, finds his people worshipping a golden calf on an altar set up by Aaron. Moses is so angry that he casts the Tables to the ground and breaks them. Like its counterpart, Jacob, Laban, and His Daughters (Petworth House), The Adoration of the Golden Calf is an allusion to infidelity and deception.

Commission from an art lover

The writing on the back of the drawing made it seem that this was a work by the English portraitist Peter Lely - erroneously. The Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), in which Gellée reproduced all his paintings in order to avoid forgeries, states that this composition was painted in 1653 for Carlo Cardelli (1626-63). It is the first of three religious paintings he produced for this young Roman art lover; after his early death, these canvases were among the first to arrive in England (in 1686), where works by this artist must have been exceptionally popular. These were, specifically: the Adoration; its counterpart; and Seaport, Embarkation of St. Paul to Ostia, in the Birminghm Art Gallery.

Sketch squared for transfer

Lorrain must have attached great importance to this painting, which certainly ranks among his most ambitious and elegant works: there are two other drawings for this composition (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, and British Museum, London) and another drawing for the dancing figures to the left of the altar (British Museum, London). Taken together, the three studies show a precise development: initially, the figures were directly copied from the fresco by Raphael in the Vatican loggia. Next, the rocks and the dancers were introduced, recalling a similar painting by Poussin (National Gallery, London). Only the third study (the one in the Louvre) uses the lengthwise composition adopted in the painting. In this study a grid is discernible, but in the painting changes have been made: to emphasize Moses and the monument to the Golden Calf his people have set up, the artist has inverted the arrangement of the groups of supplicants and dancers. Also, by moving the standing figures to the right, the painter has broadened the landscape. Other preparatory drawings for various paintings display the same peculiarity: the final study is squared for transfer but is not identical to the finished painting. We do not know whether this means that there is a final drawing we have yet to discover, or whether Lorrain made changes directly onto the canvas.


Bacou Roseline et Bean Jacob (sous la dir. de), Le dessin à Rome au XVIIe siècle : XCIe exposition du Cabinet des dessins, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1988, n 74.Méjanès Jean-François, in Dessins français du XVIIe siècle : LXXXIIIe exposition du Cabinet des dessins, Paris, musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1984-1985, n 84.Roethlisberger Marcel, Claude Lorrain : The drawings, Berkeley et Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1968, n 725-729.Russell Helen Diane, Claude Gellée dit Le Lorrain 1600-1682, exp. Washington, National Gallery of Art, Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1983, n 48.

Technical description

  • Claude GELLÉE, called Claude LORRAIN (Champagne, 1600-Rome, 1682)

    The Adoration of the Golden Calf

    Circa 1653

  • Pen, dark brown and grey wash, with oxidized white highlights at the bottom

    H. 20.6 cm; W. 38.5 cm

  • John Barnard (d. 1784), London; entered the French royal collections before the French Revolution, probably just after the Barnard sale of 1787.

    INV 26686

  • 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

Annotated on the back by John Barnard: "no. 335 / 15 by 8 / This is the original Drawing for the famous Picture that he painted for Sir Peter Lely"