Landscape with David at the Cave of Adullam by Claude Lorrain

Claude Lorrain

Landscape with David at the Cave of Adullam, 1658, Oil on canvas, 111.4 x 186.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Holwell Carr Bequest 1831, NG6, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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The Politic and the Aesthetic

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Sara Kipfer

Claude Lorrain depicts the scene of David and his warriors in the context of an impressive landscape. As we know from an inscription on a later drawing of the same subject, he painted this canvas in 1659 for Prince Agostino Chigi, who was the nephew of Pope Alexander VII. Its original location was probably the Castel Sant’Angelo or the palace at the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli in Rome.

It can be assumed that its subject had not been chosen at random. Within a political context in which corruption was not uncommon, it may have been intended to express the patron’s commitment to an ideal of self-restraint and exemplary moral behaviour. Claude painted a moment in the story not focussing on the selfless action of his warriors (which is not depicted), nor on their admiration of David (they do not kneel before him), but on David’s rejection of the water: David lifts his hands in a repelling gesture.

But perhaps the most important feature of this huge painting is not so much the narrative of David and his warriors as the landscape itself. Human gesture, body language, and physiognomic expression are upstaged by the majesty of rocks and trees, and Bethlehem’s wonderful array of pyramids and towers. The landscape becomes a protagonist of this picture, adding its own heroism to the story.

Claude—though a French painter—spent most of his career in Italy. Here, he sets his biblical narrative in hills reminiscent of his adoptive country. His representation of Bethlehem in the middle distance includes free variations of the Roman Torre delle Milizie (upper part) and the Torre dei Conti (lower part). He also vividly includes other details described in the biblical text such as the cave of Adullam—with David and his entourage standing before it—and the valley of Rephaim in the far distance.

By showing a fertile western-European landscape Claude is however underlining the symbolic meaning of the story. There is no aridity here. David’s desire to drink water from the well at the gate of Bethlehem was prompted by nostalgia for the fine-tasting water of Bethlehem’s well and not by real thirst.

Claude’s predilection for the bucolic has its own nostalgia which serves his interpretation of the story well. The experience of David, far away from his hometown and overwhelmed by homesickness, invites the viewer’s sympathy.

 

References

Langdon, Helen. 1989. Claude Lorrain (Oxford: Phaidon Press), pp. 10118

Röthlisberger, Marcel. 1979. Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, Volume 1: Critical Catalogue (New York: Hacker Art Books), pp. 34345

Sonnabend, Martin. 2011. ‘Claude Lorrain. Die verzauberte Landschaft’, in Claude Lorrain—die verzauberte Landschaft: Ausstellungskatalog, ed. by Martin Sonnabend, Christian Rümelin, and Jon Whiteley (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz), pp. 11–21