Vulnerable Landscape

Cypremort, St. Mary Parish, By Claude Ellender


The 18th century German poet Goethe is said to have quipped, “music is liquid architecture” and “architecture is frozen music.” To South Louisiana architect and landscape artist Claude Ellender, painting is music on canvas.

Born in New Orleans in the early 1950s and raised in Houma, Ellender grew up spending summers exploring the “sultry subtropical” bayous, sugarcane fields, coastal marshes and barrier islands of Terrebonne Parish. He is a grandson of Louisiana’s former United States Senator Allen Ellender, a long-time chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

After earning a degree in architecture from the University of Southwest Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Claude moved to San Francisco in 1985 to pursue a career in architecture while continuing his interest in art. In college, he took a class taught by the famed Louisiana landscape painter Elemore Morgan Jr. In 2005, Ellender returned to Louisiana and enrolled at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts where he received a classical foundation in the visual arts, especially in painting and sculpture. He now teaches at the Academy and divides his time between California and Abita Springs in St. Tammany Parish.

“Even though I have spent a large part of my adult life on the West Coast,” Ellender says, “I am always drawn back to the place of my youth for inspiration — South Louisiana; the culture, food, sultry climate, dramatic weather events, the rising Gulf waters with its repercussions to the coastal marsh, the ebb and flow of seasons.”

Ellender landscapes are witnesses to dramatic climatic changes taking place in South Louisiana. The best way to truly sense those changes, he says, is to paint on location much like the French Impressionists painters did in the 19th century. Like them, nature is his reference. He is a purist in the plein air tradition. Again like the Impressionists, he works quickly to capture on canvas rapidly changing light and atmospheric conditions. For instance, he sets up his easel at daybreak to catch that “incredible light” and “golden mist” of a sunrise on a fog-bound Louisiana marsh.

“Having grown up in Terrebonne Parish, I have observed the changes that have occurred because of rising sea levels,” says Ellender. “My paintings unintentionally catalog these changes whether it be saltwater intrusion and the destruction of cypress forests, disappearing marsh and bayous, or the loss of Gulf barrier islands. Our fragile wetlands are being lost forever. Many of the wilderness places of my youth are either gone or unrecognizable. It is happening before my eyes.”

While painting on location, music is as important to his palette as paint and brushes. Music, he says, is calming and blocks our distractions.

“Painting not only consists of linear perspective, but it is also color perspective, too,” he says. “Nearby objects have greater color saturation and are analogous to ‘forte’ or loud music. Far-away distance, accomplished with muted, softer color, has a subdued or ‘piano’ sound. Dark values are bass and light values are treble. All are equally important in creating the illusion of depth. I can tolerate loud music for finite periods of time. But art is transient and subjective, who knows what will be born on tomorrow’s blank canvas — perhaps loud music.”

Like composing a song, the illusion of painting is a “self-expression,” says Ellender. “It is giving oneself permission to be vulnerable in the eyes of others.”

What we see, however, is not vulnerability but the beauty of the Louisiana landscape.


To see more of his work visit

Categories: Homepage