Two Masters of Light: Claude Lorrain and J.M.W. Turner

JMW Turner; Slave-Ship; detail
JMW Turner; Slave-Ship; detail

An enormous deep-red sunset over a stormy sea, an indication of an approaching typhoon.A detail from JMW Turner’s “Slave-Ship”.

Painting is about light. Everything revolves around light.

Everything derives its existence one way or another from light. In this post I revisit some of the works of two masters of light, one from the baroque period, and another from the romantic leading to the modern.

Claude Lorrain; Self-portrait
Claude Lorrain; Self-portrait

One is the French Claude Lorrain (1600 – 1682).

The other is the English J.M.W. Turner ( 1775 – 1851). Both Turner and Lorrain are primarily landscape (and seascape) painters.

My mother introduced me ot the work of Turner.

I then discovered Lorrain in Room 15 of the National Gallery in London.

JMW Turner; Self-portrait 1799
JMW Turner; Self-portrait 1799

Turner was inspired by Lorrain’s landscapes and treatment of light. But Turner has his own style, in spite of the fact that he imitated Lorrain in his early period.

Lorrain is extremely tidy, the picture is well organised, the light is gentle.

Turner on the other hand is almost chaotic, the light is bursting out at the viewer, the lines are blurry.

Lorrain’s baroque light gave birth to the violent romantic and ultimately modern light of Turner.

Claude Lorrain; Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah 1648
Claude Lorrain; Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (The Mill) 1648; National Gallery, London

I start looking at pictures with one of the two Lorrain paintings in Room 15 of the National Gallery in London: The Mill, or Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. It is a landscape in late summer afternoon. It is hanging in the same room with the Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. “Claude was once an apprentice pastry chef. What he was really good at was the vista: enormous, complicated distances measured in landmarks, perspectives, light saturation and atmospheric tone. His paintings endlessly delay your journey from foreground to horizon. The wholeness of his compositions, the roundedness of the space he creates, the way he makes your eye alight here and there without any feeling of being led – these things are extremely pleasurable.” (2).

This is mild introduction to Lorrain’s depiction of light.

Claude Lorrain; Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba 1648
Claude Lorrain; Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba 1648; National Gallery London

Not so with the seaport. Here the morning sun is bright and glorious. Like all of Claude’s Embarkations, the Seaport is a coastal view, depicted in early morning light. Including the sun within a painting was Claude’s greatest early innovation. Exactly half-way up the canvas in this stateliest of his seaport compositions, it is the basis of its pictorial unity, all the colours and tones adjusted in relation to it – Claude’s palm and finger prints can be seen in many places in the sky where he smoothed transitions from one passage to the next. (5)

Seaport - detail
Seaport – detail

“By the end of the 18th century, when Turner was in his 20s, Claude’s work was held in high esteem in Britain: at least 30 of his paintings were held in collections, and his work was also a major influence on private parks and gardens. If we can’t get enough Turner now, they couldn’t get enough Claude then.” (2)

JMW Turner; Dido building Carthage; National Gallery London
JMW Turner; Dido building Carthage 1815; National Gallery London

“When (Turner) died he bequeathed to the nation a large number of his paintings, including ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sun Rising through Vapour’. These two paintings came with the condition that they should be displayed alongside Claude’s ‘Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca’ and ‘Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba’. By linking these paintings together Turner wanted to ensure that his association with  Claude (Lorrain) would endure beyond his lifetime.” (6)

Dido - detail
Dido – detail

“If you look at this painting you’ll see more than one perspective: there’s the regular horizon line, however the perspective of the building to the right of the canvas does not meet up with this. Turner was experimenting with various viewpoints, asking us to take multiple journeys through the canvas to discover the landscape from many positions. It’s odd that we look up on the buildings in the foreground, yet almost feel that we can look down on those in the centre distance. What first appears to be a classically ordered composition then turns into a sort of jigsaw puzzle, an extraordinary spatial game in which there are several pockets of space for us to explore. His use of colour is also intriguing; vast washes of luminous yellows and intense greens have a transcendent and immaterial quality. These deep pools of colour do not create structure or fix the space – they seem to hover on the canvas and create fleeting effects of light. With these approaches to painting Turner layed the foundations of Impressionism and sowed the seed of what would eventually become abstract art.” (7)

JMW Turner; The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire 1817
JMW Turner; The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire 1817; Tate Britain, London

In the decline of the Carthaginian Empire, Turner painted the setting sun. “Claude Lorrain was Turner’s favourite old master painter. This (The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire) is one of his greatest essays in Claude’s style. It is part of a pair of paintings showing the rise and fall of a great empire; here, Carthage’s decline is symbolised by the setting sun. Turner saw the rise and fall of once-great empires as a historical inevitability, confirmed by the fall of Napoleon, but threatening to overtake the victorious British. Today, the other half of the pair Dido building Carthage; or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire hangs, at Turner’s request, alongside a painting by Claude in the National Gallery.” (4)

JMW Turner; The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire 1817 - detail
JMW Turner; The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire 1817 – detail

It is 1817 and already the emergence of the new light is visible. The light that fuses the elements, the blurs the contours, that unifies the canvas.

JMW Turner Sunrise with Sea Monsters 1945
JMW Turner Sunrise with Sea Monsters 1845

Jumping from 1817 to 1845, the “Sunrise with Sea Monsters”is an abstract painting. The object of the painting is barely visible. The whole painting is about light. The “object” is for Turner just an excuse to paint the light.

“… in 1843 Ruskin published the first volume of his book Modern Painters – placing Turner at their head. While critics accused Turner of extravagance and exaggeration, outdoing each other with comparisons of his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash, beetroot or mustard, Ruskin rooted his analysis (at least at first) in Turner’s truth to nature. He became the standard-bearer of a new generation of Turner admirers, now usually professional, middle class or newly rich, who embraced his work for its modernity. ” (1)

JMW Turner; Landscape with Distant River and Bay 1840-1850
JMW Turner; Landscape with Distant River and Bay 1840-1850; Musee du Louvre, Paris

“Of all the British artists to revive European landscape painting, Turner went furthest, pushing the dissolution of forms in light to the edge of abstraction. This painting belongs to a group of unfinished works composed around 1845…” (8)

JMW Turner; The Junction of the Severn and the Wye; 1806; Tate Britain, London
JMW Turner; The Junction of the Severn and the Wye; 1806; Tate Britain, London

“Liber Studorium” was a sample book of Turner’s landscapes. The “Confluence of the Severn and the Wye” was one plate of this anthology, inspired by Claude Lorrain, and it supplied the basis for the 1845 composition in the Louvre. (8). Here we have a mnifestation of the circularity of Time. The aging Turner returns to his youth, to the themes that inspired him, and reworks them, embeds them in the new Turner of the old age, but of the New Art, abstraction.

Claude Lorrain; The Dissembarkation of Kleopatra at Tarsus; 1648; Musee du Louvre, PAris
Claude Lorrain; The Dissembarkation of Cleopatra at Tarsus; 1648; Musee du Louvre, PAris

As I arrive at the closure of this post, I want to look again at one of Claude’s magnificent early morning port scenes.

“A sun – drenched sea port in a perfect synthesis of the Bolognese classical ideal and the luminosity of the Italianizing Dutch school.” (8)

Dissembarcation - detail
Dissembarcation – detail

And then return to Turner’s ventures into abstraction.

Landscape with Water circa 1840-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner
JMW Turner; Landscape with Water circa 1840-5; Tate Britain

“Indeed, come 1845’s Landscape with WaterTivoli and Turner is verging on abstraction. Figures, buildings and other narrative details are eliminated, the sun’s almighty white reflection off the Tiber dissolving the entire scene. Late in life, though still attracted by Claude’s settings, Turner had long since left behind Claude’s style – his intensities of light, pulsations of energy and dissolutions of form celebrate the numinous rather than the physical.” (3)


1. JMW Turner, Tate Gallery

2. Turner and Claude. The Guardian

3. Turner Inspired. The Telegraph.

4. The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire

5. The National Gallery. Companion Guide. Erika Langmuir.

6. The Turner Bequest.

7. Artwork Of The Week – ‘Dido Building Carthage‘ By J.M.W. Turner

8. The Louvre Collections. Paris 1999.


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