Art historians, exercising their proclivity toward overanalyzing all things bold and beautiful, have divided the art of landscape painting into four categories: symbolic, factual, fantasy, and ideal. The symbolic landscape is rare, serving to teach a moral such as in the work of Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life: Youth. The factual landscape renders nature without regard to beauty or perfection, but with an eye toward an almost scientific depiction. Just the opposite, the fantasy landscape tends to come from an amalgamation served up from the artist's imagination. And the Ideal landscape falls somewhere between these last two. Here the artist sketches an actual landscape on location, then seeks to "improve" upon nature in his studio. Undoubtedly, the master of this latter category was the seventeenth century landscape painter, Claude Lorrain.
Technically, Claude Lorrain was a Frenchman, having been born in the village of Chamagne near Nancy in the Duchy of Lorrain. Both his parents died when he was a small child so the boy made his way to Rome where he lived the rest of his life, which would seem to make him a defacto Italian. In Rome, the young boy worked as a pastry cook, a childhood of poverty instilling in him the qualities of shrewdness and hard work that caused him to accumulate considerable wealth over his lifetime. Self-educated in all things, including his painting, his inspiration came from the countryside near Rome, specializing in those conditions of nature that allowed him to paint natural scenery more harmonious and beautiful than nature.
There tends to be a loose formula to most of Claude Lorrain's work. A tall, feathery tree usually occupies one side or the other of the painting with its shadow falling toward the center. In the background are usually groups of trees and some architectural feature, often painted a misty blue, directly from nature. In most cases, the foreground contains some allegorical, religious, or mythological happening. The artist was as much at home painting architectural features into his landscapes as nature. Though working in obscurity until he was 30, by the time he was 38, he was the leading landscape painter in Italy. Ever the shrewd businessman, he documented each of his paintings in what he called "The Book of Truth", drawing exact copies with names of his patrons, dates, sizes, and titles. In so doing, he was able to protect himself from forgers. Today, the book is an art historian's dream come true, serving as an invaluable document chronicling in detail his artistic development. Some 250 paintings and over 1000 of his drawings are known to survive, serving as a point of departure for later generations of landscape painters such as Corot, Constable, Turner, Boudin, and Courbet.