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Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia

Claude Lorrain

Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia

Claude Lorrain
  • Date: 1682
  • Style: Classicism
  • Genre: mythological painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Tag: Greek-and-Roman-Mythology, ruins-and-columns, hunting-and-racing, archers
  • Dimensions: 150 x 120 cm
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Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia is a painting of 1682 in oil on canvas by Claude Lorrain (Claude Gellée, traditionally just "Claude" in English), a painter from the Duchy of Lorraine who spent his career in Rome. It was painted in Rome for Prince Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna (1637–1689), Claude's most important patron in his last years, and is now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It is signed, dated with the year, and inscribed with the subject (at centre bottom), as Claude sometimes did with his less common subjects.

It was Claude's last painting, and is perhaps not quite finished; it therefore does not appear in the Liber Veritatis, where he made drawings to record his finished works. His date of birth is uncertain, but he was at least in his late seventies when he painted it, perhaps as old as 82. It was a pendant to his painting, completed six years earlier, View of Carthage with Dido and Aeneas (or Aeneas's Farewell to Dido in Carthage, 1676, now Kunsthalle, Hamburg), another scene from the Aeneid, coming earlier than this one. This was the last of Claude's many harbour scenes. With the Oxford painting hung on the left, the groups of figures in each face inwards, and the main buildings frame the outsides of the pair. Both paintings feature large columns on a classical building, a punning reference to the Colonna family, who included such a column in their coat of arms.

The painting depicts a scene from book 7, verses 483–499, of Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid. Aeneas's son Ascanius shoots a stag that is the house-reared pet of Silvia, daughter of "Tyrrheus, chief ranger to the Latian king" (John Dryden's translation), provoking a war with Latium for the future site of Rome. Virgil's account, over 16 lines, spends most of them describing the closeness of the relationship between Sylvia and the stag. The moment shown is one of stillness, as Ascanius takes aim and the stag, too trusting in its special status, looks at him. Once the arrow is fired the tranquil coastal landscape spreading out behind them will very quickly be disrupted by the war that Virgil goes on to describe.

Unusually for Claude, the sky is overcast with storm clouds, and the trees are bent by a wind blowing from the left. The elaborate temple in the Corinthian order has long been falling into ruin. On the face of it this, in a scene from before the founding of Rome, is an anachronism that would have been apparent even in the 17th century, but it reflects the state to which ancient Roman monuments were reduced in Claude's own time. The painting therefore embraces the whole trajectory of Roman civilization across history, from its start to its end, and peoples an idealized landscape from Claude's time with figures from its early history.

The subject is very rare in art, but there is a composition by Rubens, with a painting in Girona and an oil sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing a different point in the story. This is also a late work, but the composition could hardly be more different; here Sylvia nurses the dying stag as a female companion keeps the hounds off it, and fighting has broken out behind them between the Latins and Ascanius' party.

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