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 tapistries. 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)