A landscape whose particulars delight

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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This is a painting I like to go to when I’m in an agitated state, when my eyes have been darting senselessly from screen to screen for far too much of the day, when the world feels hectic, harried, over-illuminated, decrepit.

It’s not that Claude’s luminous painting at the Museum of Fine Arts is entirely serene. It may look, from a distance, like a scene of unassailable placidity, but in fact it’s remarkably busy. An active water mill, dozens of goats and other farm animals, a painter, Roman ruins, two boats, three buildings — what more do you want?

This is a painting of industry, history, culture, technology, and agriculture all rolled into one. It reminds us that, in revolutionizing the genre of landscape painting in the 17th century, Claude meant business. He infused the once lowly category of landscape with qualities nobody previously had seen fit to give it, aligning it with notions of nobility, grandeur, equilibrium, and of course, antiquity in ways that painters not only in Europe but also in America imitated for centuries to come.

But to be honest, none of that has much to do with why I like to seek this painting out (its location is the upstairs rotunda, near the MFA’s State Street entrance).

Sure, I am impressed by Claude’s almost effortless ability to structure his pictures — by the way he created depth not by laboriously following all the rules of linear perspective, but by his exquisite control of atmospheric light. Also, by the way he leads the eye in a zigzagging line from right front (the boat’s prow) to left (the tall, backlighted trees) and then left back to right, taking us further and further into the distance, away from the vicissitudes of human striving and closer to an ethereal, empty, perhaps even spiritual realm.

But all this, described thus, feels formulaic. And of course, over time, Claude’s approach to landscape did indeed become one of Western art’s biggest clichés.

Instead, it’s the particulars in Claude’s “Mill on a River’’ that I find so entrancing. Not the human figures (which Claude showed little interest in, and may even have had others paint for him), but the discrete pockets of intent observation, each with its own particular mood, all of them held in perfect balance.

Those trees, for instance — so dark, proud, and inviolate. And then the buildings of the mill itself, small portions of their stone exteriors still absorbing the low, beneficent sun.

Perhaps most moving of all, the long pulley rope that connects the trees at left and the buildings at right. Its upper edge catches the light. Even as it holds two worlds together — the sun-kissed right bank and the shadowy left — it hits my eyes almost as a thin tear in the whole illusion, like one of Barnett Newman’s “zips’’ or a Lucio Fontana knife slit. There’s something faintly ominous about it, isn’t there?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

MILL ON A RIVER Claude Lorrain

At: Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300.