Claude ‘Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba’, 1648
Transposed to an imaginary harbour, Claude’s glistening sunrise almost outshines a queen and her entourage
The gorgeous yellow sun at the centre of Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, rising above the horizon, casts its rays across an ocean, illuminating a seaport.
The Queen of Sheba, the small figure on the right of the painting dressed in red robes and a crown, is leading a procession out of a temple and down some steps, where a boat awaits to ferry her across the harbour to her ship.
Claude often painted seaports and here has chosen a scene from the Books of Kings in the Bible. The Queen of Sheba heard that King Solomon was very wise and decided to go to Jerusalem to see for herself if this was so. However, in the Bible story, she is described as travelling to Jerusalem not by sea but by land. Claude has reinterpreted the story, creating an opportunity to depict a resplendent harbour scene.
The painting was commissioned by the Duc de Bouillon, the French general of the papal army. Many years later it was bought by the London-based merchant and philanthropist John Julius Angerstein and on his death it became one of the first paintings in the National Gallery Collection.
Before Angerstein died, a young Turner came to see the painting. Angerstein discovered him weeping in front of it and, when asked why he was crying, Turner replied that he would never be able to paint a sun like Claude’s.
Claude’s influence on Turner was so great that on having bequeathed numerous works to the nation, Turner stipulated in his will that his paintings, Dido building Carthage and Sun Rising through Vapour should be hung in the National Gallery next to this seaport and another work by Claude, The Mill, where they remain to this day.