Claude Gellee, or Claude Lorrain(e), was born in Lorraine, near Nancy, and, according to Sandrart, was originally trained as a pastry-cook. It would appear that on the death of his parents in 1612 he went with his brother to Freiburg-im-Breisgau, working on intarsie for about a year, and then went with a friend or relative to Rome in 1613. There is no evidence that he worked as a garzone for the Cavaliere d'Arpino, and his movements are unclear until he was working for the landscape painter Agostino Tassi, first as a servant and then as a assistant.
He was in Naples 1618-20 and was probaly again with Tassi from 1620-25 as his pupil and assistant. In 1625 he returned to Nancy via Venice and Bavaria, but was back in Rome by 1627 via Lyons and Marseilles and working on fresco decorations in noblemen's houses. He preferred working on canvas, from drawings made in and around Rome. There are no works by him certainly datable before 1630, but by the end of the 1630s he had a big reputation as a landscape painter and his popularity has remained undimmed ever since.
He never had a pupil, but employed a garzone from 1637-59. The 195 drawings in his Liber Veritatis (London, BM), begun c.1635, were his own record of his paintings, made to guard against copies and forgeries (which says much for his reputation). The obvious comparison is with Poussin, but while the latter derived his heroic landscapes from Titian and Annibale Carracci, Claude's sources lie chiefly in the romanticized poetic landscapes of the later Mannerists such as Tassi, and the Northerners Elsheimer and the Brils. Like them, Claude used the later Mannerist traditions of the division of the picture into areas of dark greenish-brown foreground, light green middle distance, and blue far distance, with the composition set out in coulisses to create a sense of infinite distance, and tree forms treated as feathery fronds in silhouette. He also developed Elsheimer's landscape of mood created by poetic lighting effects, though not so much with strong chiaroscuro as by looking into the sun in a blaze of golden light. His composition remains virtually constant: a large mass of trees on one side counterbalanced by a smaller mass on the other, a middle distance with some small features such as a bridge or farm, and a far distance of mountains, rivers or the Roman Campagna, in the most delicately atmospheric handling.
In his sea-pieces and port scenes, the additive detail of shipping, masonry, rigging, merchandise lying on quays, does not really alter this arrangement of the parts, and allows him to concentrate on the magical effect of sunlight shimmering on water. He also uses small figures (possibly sometimes by other artists) not for themselves, but as a part of Nature, the drama of their action absorbed into immensities of light and space.
His working drawings cover a wide territory round Rome, as far south as Subiaco and Palestriana, and north to Bracciano. Those of the coast at Sorrento were probaly done when he was in Naples. His loose and free handling exemplifies his way of looking at landscape by graduations of tone rather than colouristically, and his poetic rather than formal vision. Sandrart describes Claude's working methods and claims (perhaps wrongly) to have persuaded him to paint, as well as draw, in the open air. He also claims to have gone on sketching parties with Claude, Poussin, and some of the painters of bambocciate.
Claude's production was steady, at about seventy pictures a year, some certainly quite small, though he painted four or five large ones yearly, until 1650 when he slowed to about thirty because by then he was painting mainly large works. In his last years he slowed to about ten to twelve pictures a year. Also, he painted only on commission, with virtually a waiting list of clients. If one adds to this the huge number of drawings, the occasional etching and the Liber Veritatis, his oeuvre is enormous.
His influence was particularly strong in England, where his works were eagerly collected in the 18th and 19th centuries: almost all older galleries have examples and he is now also well represented in the US.