Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Embarkation of St Paula 

Claude Gelle, called Le Lorrain (1604/5-1682)

The Embarkation of St Paula, Claude Gelle, called Le Lorrain
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
34 1/2 x 47 5/8 in. (87.6 X 121 cm.)
Private Collection, New York
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The present work relates to Claude’s well-known composition The Embarkation of Saint Paula for Jersusulem, the prime version of which was dramatically rediscovered in 2013. This example, which was until recently considered a much later copy, can now be dated to within the seventeenth century , and was most likely painted by someone from Claude’s immediate circle.

According to Saint Jerome, Saint Paula (d.404 AD), who is shown standing in the centre of the composition clutching a crucifix on a beaded cord, was a wealthy Roman senates daughter who, after suffering two family bereavements in quick succession, decided to give up her life of wealth and opulence and instead leave for Jerusalem to be at one with God. This scene depicts the moment of her departure with her friends and family attempting to dissuade her from leaving; her young son Toxotius, who can be seen standing in the group to the left, supposedly stood ‘[…] with uplifted hands on the shore, and bitterly weeping […]’. Following her arrival in Bethlehem in 356 AD Saint Paula built a hospital, three convents and a monastery for Saint Jerome, whose correspondence is the only source of information relating to her life.

Claude, who was described by the great English painter John Constable (1776 – 1837) as “the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw” , was born in the small village of Chamagne, Vosges, in Duchy of Lorraine, and was one of five sons born to Jean Gellée and Anne Padose, both of whom died when he was twelve. After a brief period spent living with his eldest brother Jean, who was also an artist, Claude left for Germany followed by Rome, where he became a studio assistant to the celebrated landscape painter Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). He then travelled to Naples, briefly visited Marseilles, Genoa and Venice before returning to Nancy (the former capital of Duchy of Lorraine) and then finally settled in Rome in 1628. Whilst in Rome Claude secured a number of important commissions from illustrious patrons including the King of Spain (Philip IV) (1605-1665) and Cardinal Bentivoglio (1579-1644), which greatly helped to establish his reputation.

After 1670, and following a near fatal attack of gout, Claude’s output slowed down and he died on 23rd November 1682, not long after completing his last work Ascanius Shooting the Stag for Sylvia for Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna (1637-89).

The original work to which this painting relates was commissioned by Cardinal Domenicho Cecchini (1589-1656) in Rome, and was discovered in 2013 following its emergence from an English private collection, where for decades it had been considered an inferior copy. Until this point, the prime version was considered to be the example in the Musée des Vosges, Èpinal.
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