You can almost catch a breath of sea air, touch the breezes, feel the rocking of the waves. You are at a naval base, surrounded by the ships and the life and the smells that are so difficult to describe to people who have never lived there, at least for a while. You are looking at a painting by Rudolf Klaudus, painter of the sea and its people.
Rudolf Klaudus was born on 23 April 1893 in Oedemburg, close to Vienna. The son of an army officer, Johannes, and Mary Wittman, young Klaudus was attracted by the sea. In 1908, at age 15, he joined the Naval Academy in Pola, Austria-Hungary, eventually becoming an officer and earning his degree as a naval engineer. He served in the Imperial Navy through the end of World War I in 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian empire surrendered to the Allies.
The end of the war found Klaudus back in Pola, which had been assigned to Italy by the Treaty of St. Germain in 1919. There he met people in the Italian Navy and began a period of intense artistic activity, burying himself in his work to help overcome the personal crisis he was experiencing after his country’s defeat. He painted all the major Italian naval ships of that period, as well as the most important British and French vessels operating in the Mediterranean.
In 1919, in Venice, Claudus (he began signing his name substituting the K with a C) was a guest of Admiral Acton and was taken on board the RN Andrea Doria as “Painter of the Sea.” This was a fitting honor, for Claudus had a unique ability to give movement and color to the sea— characteristics that are much admired in his works. In some of his paintings the power of the elements is so encompassing that it is possible to remove all other subjects from the canvas and leave just the sea and the sky to fill the painting.
In 1935, the news of his celebrity crossed the Atlantic Ocean: President Franklin Roosevelt wanted him as a guest in the United States. On that occasion, thanks to his prolific artistic capacity, Claudus was able to produce many paintings. His subject was the American War of Independence, a matter of particular interest to President Roosevelt, who reviewed some of Claudus’s preliminary sketches. One series of paintings, which can be viewed in Annapolis, Maryland, at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, is simply splendid. A collection of 20 small watercolors, it captures many important naval battles and moments from the War of 1812. It seems that while in Washington, he also created a painting on the box that holds the first U.S. flag. The painting is said to represent the episode in which the flag was first flown.
After his return to Italy, from 1936 to 1940, Claudus decorated the naval officers’ club in La Spezia, the Admiralty, and the wardrooms and meeting rooms of the main naval ships in the fleet. At the beginning of World War II, he was called to Taranto, where he worked full time, almost for free, to produce a historic/artistic documentation of the participation of the Italian Navy in the war.
His technical background made him a precise interpreter of the realities of men at sea and at war. From under the foggy effect of his brushes on the canvas emerged great detail. The unnatural postures of the wounded and the images of men and ships in difficulty give the person looking at the painting the sensation of being an eye witness to the event. It seems possible to see the drenched and torn uniforms and the tense and anxious faces of the men who cling to the precarious wrecks, awaiting the decision on their destiny. This is the world of sailors, where life is tough and subject to all the rigors and caprices of nature. Claudus overcame the social classes and their contrasts: they are all sea people . . . each man among them capable of giving up his life for his fellow sailor.
On 8 September 1943, he was put in prison in La Spezia, Italy, by the SS because of his refusal to join the Auschluss. He remained imprisoned until 1945, when German resistance in Northern Italy collapsed, and all political prisoners were set free.
He then worked for a brief period as a guest of the Royal Navy, producing some paintings of British naval vessels that are currently in the United Kingdom.
From 1947 to 1953 he worked in Livorno, Italy, at the Naval Academy. There he produced a significant number of paintings, many of which were given by the Naval Academy Command as gifts to various authorities (e.g., King Farouk, Venezuela’s president, Cardinal Spellman, President John F. Kennedy, the King of Denmark, the Scia of Persia, Admiral Robert Carney, and Admiral J. J. Clark). The painting for President Kennedy is rumored to have been ordered by the President himself, to immortalize the fighting in the Pacific on board PT 109.
By this point in his life, Claudus had become somewhat disenchanted with the navy, and he found it more and more difficult to accept the discipline and respect for authority necessary in a military environment. He felt he had been used by the navy and by society, considering his contributions and his achievements in the field of art, and he began to distance himself from the navy. He moved to Gallese in Teverino, a small town close to Rome, and later to Rome itself.
These last years of his life were particularly tough for Claudus; he became increasingly despondent. To make matters worse, he suffered severe financial difficulties, and no one seemed to care or be willing to help him. In April 1964, like many great artists before him, Claudus passed away sad and upset by a world that had turned its back on him.
But, years after his death, Claudus is beginning to gain the recognition and appreciation he so richly deserves. He depicted some of the most modern ships without even seeing them constructed in the shipyard, using only the construction drawings. His experience in naval art was so overwhelming that even working this way his results were exacting. He spent his free time reading books that would enhance his knowledge of the historical facts that were to become the subjects of his paintings. The colors from his palette are clean and brilliant, mixed using the palette knife and not the brush. A myriad of drawings came out of his clever, tireless, hands—sketches of hats, bulls, tractors, boats, beautiful women—everything became a “subject of study.” But at the same time it was free play, the pleasure of a moment.
The leadish colors peculiar to his skies and seas, the deep sense of humanity, and the beauty and precision of his compositions made Rudolf Claudus an extraordinary interpreter of the naval facets of the last world war. His works have found an audience of admirers among those who like painting or more simply who love the sea, the ships, and painting without falseness, so that what is in the frame before them provokes pure admiration.