Look at the work of Claude Lorrain and Turner. Write notes on how those artists divide the landscape into foreground, middle ground and background.
In Room 15 of the National Gallery in London there are four paintings – two by Claude Lorrain, usually known simply as Claude, and two by Joseph Mallord William Turner. (As Lady Bracknell might have said “Three forenames always inspire confidence, even in tradesmen.”) They are Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648, and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (‘The Mill’), 1648, by Claude together with Dido Building Carthage, 1815, and Sun Rising through Vapour, before 1807, by Turner.
The reason they are together is a result of Turner’s will in which he left his two paintings to the National Gallery on condition that they were hung ‘always between the two pictures painted by Claude’, which he named as ‘The Seaport’ and ‘The Mill’. In fact, as a consequence of a challenge to the will by relatives, most of Turner’s artistic output was left to the nation. Most of this is now housed in Tate Britain including many drawings and sketchbooks.
When Claude painted Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba in the mid-seventeenth century, pure landscape painting was not regarded as a separate serious artistic discipline. Narrative paintings, be they based on classical mythology or, as above, on biblical events, were considered superior. It is clear in Claude’s work though that he was interested in the landscape with figures having only a small part of the composition.
The Bible relates how the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem (1 Kings 10). Their meeting was often painted, but it was unusual to depict the Queen’s embarkation. The Queen, wearing a pink tunic, royal blue cloak, and golden crown, is about to board a waiting launch in the middle ground. The steps she is standing on together with the portico of imaginary classical building give a dramatic perspective to the picture. The foreground is dominated by less important, yet much larger figures and boat. The distance has the Sun prominent in the composition. Claude was one of the first artists to use the Sun in this way. Like most of Claude’s paintings, the scene is imaginary and an idealised version of the landscape.
Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, together with Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, were commissioned by the Duc de Bouillon, a general of the Papal army, so they are called the Bouillon Claudes. They were among the first acquisitions of the National Gallery and have inventory numbers of NG12 and NG14.
Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca otherwise know as The Mill shows an artificial Arcadian landscape. It is not even known what kind of trees they are meant to be. Yet the sky and the way the clouds are modelled by the light could have been painted much more recently in that they are so realistic. The aerial perspective from the rich blue at the top of the painting to the much paler tints near the horizon are excellent. The modelling of the mill and its waterwheel are also spot on. The middle ground with its waterfall and the distant mountain with its mist are dramatically framed by the trees on either side. The foreground features figures but they are not particularly big. Claude was aware that his painting of figures was not as good as his landscapes. Indeed he is said to have claimed to sell his landscapes but to give away his figures.
The National Gallery describes Dido Building Carthage as “one of Turner’s most ambitious imitations of the 17th-century French painter Claude.” Although painted a century and a half after Claude’s works, it is a historical piece which was inspired by Virgil’s epic Latin poem, the ‘Aeneid’, and shows the building of the North African city of Carthage, which Dido founded. The figure in blue on the left is Dido, and on the right is the tomb erected for her dead husband, Sichaeus.
It has similar linear perspective of the classical buildings and similar aerial perspective in the sky as Claude’s paintings. It has a dramatic sun, though, in my opinion, it is too dramatic and loses the subtlety of Claude’s sun in his Queen of Sheba work. Dido seems to be in a similar position to the Queen of Sheba, but there are no foreground figures. His middle ground and background are framed by the trees and buildings in the same way as Claude.
The fourth painting in the room Turner’s Sun Rising through Vapour puzzles me a little. It was shown in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1807 though its actual date of painting is not certain. This is nearly a decade before Dido Building Carthage. Unlike the later painting, it is clearly influenced by mid-seventeenth century Dutch painting. In fact Turner was commissioned to paint a companion piece to a Dutch seascape by the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater in 1801.
Dutch Boats in a Gale (‘The Bridgewater Sea Piece’), 1801
The puzzle to me about Sun Rising through Vapour is that it does not seem to fit in with the works by Claude. Yes, the sun is prominent in the distance (and, in my opinion, much better than the later work) but it does not pretend to be a classical, historical or biblical painting. It is a straight seascape. Unlike many Dutch Golden Age seascapes, it does have a foreground, with figures, a boat and an anchor, as well as a middle ground of ships and the distant sun and clouds. While there are no classical buildings to show linear perspective, there is sufficient aerial perspective with the pale, subtle tones of the distant ships to make a definite three dimensional piece. Of the four paintings in Room 15, this is the one which passes my ‘Would you have it on your wall?’ test, but that is probably due to my love of Dutch 17th century painting. Which reminds me, I hope to have another ticked off in my I Spy Vermeer book by the end of this week! I wonder what else I’ll see in Dublin.