Claude Lorrain’s painting, The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, catches the feel of morning like few other paintings.
The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648, by Claude Gellée, called Le Lorrain (1600—1682)
canvas 148.6 x 193.7 The National Gallery of London (public domain photo)
See close-ups at the webpage of the National Gallery here.
He painted many harbors with the rising sun opening the morning mist and flashing on the waves. He made them the backdrops of famous myths and Bible stories, which sometimes seem arbitrary additions.
But here the story and the setting serve each other perfectly. The picture combines the glory of morning and the excitement of a new day with the thrill of setting out on an adventure and the anticipation of happiness.
The Queen of Sheba is about to embark on a trip to Jerusalem, where she will meet the great Solomon, King of Israel. She had heard of his wisdom and wanted to judge for herself. Some lines of The Song of Songs seem to speak of a love between the two monarchs.
She descends the palace steps and receives the gallant goodbyes and well-wishes of her noble friends before stepping onto the royal rowboat, cushioned with colorful tapestries. The rowers watch the great lady approach; their captain stands with outstretched hand to help her board.
Her handsome little ship waits at the entrance to the harbor, its sails soon to unfold and billow. The flags, which blow seaward, show that the wind is favorable. In the foreground two of the Queen’s servants load a pretty trunk onto another rowboat, which others begin to free from its moorings. The momentous voyage, like the new day of so much promise, is about to begin.
Of course the Queen of Sheba didn’t live in a seventeenth-century palace with Roman ruins lying around. And she didn’t sail out of a harbor with medieval towers for charm. It’s all make-believe, elaborated in the quiet of the painter’s studio with the memory of a sunrise in his head and heart.
Though down at the dock Claude made sketches and took notes. In his scenes with distant views he worked hard to get the tones of color and brightness just right, not only for the objects at different distances but for the very air. The critic Lawrence Gowing says this:
“Claude developed the habit of drawing from nature in pen and wash…He went out to the countryside in the morning and evening and mixed a sequence of colors to correspond with the series of tones he observed from the middle ground to the greatest distance. He then took them home for use in the appropriate parts of the picture that was waiting on his easel. Both mixing opaque colors and matching them to nature were in his time most unconventional procedures.” Paintings in the Louvre, Ed. Stuart, Tabori and Change, New york, 1987
The tones seem clearly differentiated in this view of an idyllic landscape with a morning mist.
Hagar and the Angel, 1646 (public domain photo)
The National Gallery, London
Read more about Claude.
Engraving after a self portrait of Claude Lorrain (public domain photo)
I wonder where Claude got the idea that the Queen came by boat. Not in the Bible: 1 Kings 10.2 speaks of “a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones.” Whether one imagines she’s from Ethiopia or Yemen or any other eastern land (the Bible doesn’t say), she’s highly unlikely to have sailed to Israel. Do you know of any other reference to her taking to the sea?
Judith: In an Atlas de la Biblia, published by Selecciones de Reader’s Digest (Iberia), S.A., 1984, p. 105, I found a photo of painting on a sheepskin which, in a series of “frames” like a cartoon strip, illustrates the Ethiopian version of this legend. In one of the frames the Queen is in a boat on her way to visit Solomon, and in the background are the Pyramids. So she sailed down the Nile.
A note at the back of the book merely says the sheepskin is in the Addis Abeba Archaeological Museum—no more story about it, and especially, no date. It looks medieval.
It’s hard to believe Claude was illustrating this story, however, or had ever heard it. I suppose one could say that his painting shows the Queen leaving an Egyptian port, where she made a rest stop after her Nile voyage. But Claude gives his harbor no Egyptian flavor at all, and of course, Alexandría hadn’t yet been founded.
I don’t know of another Sheba sailing or embarking pìcture but I will keep an eye out. You probably know a very similar Claude painting of the Arrival of Cleopatra at Tarsus. He needed a good “play” for his beautiful stage scenery and great queens coming and going fit the bill.
Isn’t it almost all art – past & present – `make-believe` ? and, since we are there, isn’t it our whole life ? (seems kind of corny when you say it…but it doesn’t mean it cannot be true…I suppose…)
Right, Danu. “Whole life” if you mean our whole view of it. Great works like Michelangelo’s Pietá were done before he was twenty-four, so he hadn’t had much life experience yet.
Did you see that Claude considered himself a landscape painter and used to even have other artists paint in the figures for him. “I sell you the landscape–that’s my work,” he used to tell buyers. “The figures are free.”
I’m so struck by the description of Claude going out in the field and making dedicated pen and wash studies of values at various distances in nature. That would be a very useful chart to have in the studio.
Handel also used this as a theme for one of his oratorios, “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, which the Irish band, DeDanaan, much later re-arranged into an upbeat dance tune, “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba to Galway”. The Queen must have been an impressive woman.
Great post, 100swallows, as always.
Zeladoniac: Thanks. I read about the Handel oratorio but have never heard it. I liked his Julius Caesar. And now you’ve got me very curious about that Irish band’s version. Is there a banjo part for you?
Those pen and wash studies of his certainly gave him the edge over Poussin, who should have gone outdoors a little more.
Well Debbie beat me to it on the Gowing quote on Claude’s wash studies. That struck me right away. And of course the sunrise in his head and heart’ perfectly stated phrase.
I didn’t realize also that he did so many harbors. But I think Claude got short shrift in my art education. ‘The first landscape painter’ then on to other things, especially as landscape wasn’t too popular at the time I studied him. One more artist to look at more closely!
I think there IS a banjo on “Queen of Sheba”, DeDanaan’s version- but it’s a four-string, not a five-string part, so I’d be lost…it’s a perfectly wonderful tune.
I think I really think I have two paintings of Claude Lorraine! A pity I can not send a picture of those two on this side. Interested?
Happy to come back after a while to your blog and discover this delightful post. You have a gift that is quite rare with for instance art critics, i.e. to be able to convey the feelings and impressions created by the artist upon the viewer, without necessarily feeling obliged to refer to technique, skill or process. I personally love this painting by Claude Lorrain, and your post describes what I feel so well that it adds to my pleasure of admiring the picture.
Thank you very much for this
Will: Thanks a lot. I suppose you saw that it was an old post brought back up. I’ve been away from the blog for much too long. Maybe next month I can start to write more posts. This one begged to be written because of the impact of the Lorrain painting on me when I saw it the first time–and the times afterwards. I’m glad I can count on an artist like you for a reader and critic. A post is always richer because of your comments.
Why would Claude Lorraine draw the Sheba Queen on a small corner, even the experts cannot realize which ship she would get on… And in the centre of the picture there is nothing but “The Sun”…
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