Research point: Claude Lorrain and Turner

Look at the work of Claude Lorrain and Turner. Write notes on how those artists divide their landscapes into foreground, middle ground, and background.

Claude Lorrain, The Judgement of Paris, 1645-46

Claude Lorrain, The Judgement of Paris, 1645-46

The division of a landscape into foreground, middle ground, and background usually relies on the use of aerial perspective. This effect,  referred to by Leonardo da Vinci as ‘ the perspective of disappearance’, causes objects/subjects to appear smaller, and lose contrast, detail, and focus as they recede in space. It also causes colours to take on an increased blue-grey hue as they become more distant and colour intensity lessens (Art Studio Chalkboard, 2012).

Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) was born in France, and later settled in Italy. Landscape was not yet considered as a subject in its own right, yet in his biblical and narrative paintings, the landscape was ‘the true subject’, and his paintings eventually served to elevate the genre (University of Virginia, 2013). The effects of light on form were his main point of focus. Figures appear almost incidental in many of his paintings. In The Judgement of Paris (1645-46, see above), Lorrain ‘depicts the atmospheric perspective and naturalistic style that made his ideal classical landscape paintings so successful'(Trang, 2013). The picture is clearly divided into three sections. The foreground is framed on the left by the mountain and waterfall. The middle ground is largely dominated by the tall green tree, almost at the centre of the painting. The background features an open landscape, with a river to the fore, receding to a scene of far less distinct smaller mountains. The top right hand corner consists of a rich blue sky, with white clouds extending to the horizon. The figures occupy less than quarter of the painting. Overall, the scene appears idealised, due to the use of  atmospheric (aerial) perspective and the inclusion of rich reds and blues. ‘The objects in the painting decrease in size and grow blurrier as they recede from the foreground, which reflects how distance appears in reality.’ In this way, ‘the painting appears to have depth and can continue beyond the human vision. The humans and animals in the painting are also proportionately portrayed in relation to the mountainous setting, which reflects ‘correct’ proportions to reality. The eternal expanse of the clear blue sky further contributes to the illusion of space. This vastness adds to the ethereal and timeless quality of the idealistic painting’ (Trang, 2013).

Claude Lorrain, View of Tivoli at Sunset, 1644

Claude Lorrain, View of Tivoli at Sunset, 1644

Another example of Lorrain’s idealised landscapes is View of Tivoli at Sunset (1644, see above). Once again, human figures play a secondary role, dwarfed as they are by the grand scale of the landscape and classical architectural ruins. Here, the figures and animals are in the foreground, but occupy only a fraction of the overall space. In keeping with the rules of aerial perspective, the foreground contains many details, but the most keenly observed seem to have been reserved for the foliage of the trees that frame the middle ground. This framing device focuses the viewers attention along the river, towards the ancient ruins. Their detail and intensity are lessened, but the golden glow of the setting sun serves to highlight them in a way that moves our eye away from the foreground. As ever with Lorrain, naturalism is emphasised strongly, but it is an idealised naturalism –  a perfect view of nature.

Claude Lorrain, View from Tivoli, ink and wash

Claude Lorrain, View from Tivoli, ink and wash

I was interested to look at some of Lorrain’s drawings, too, and have included a couple here – View from Tivoli (above) and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (below). Both clearly illustrate his use of aerial perspective. In View from Tivoli, contrast emphasises the foreground, in addition to the effects of the receding landscape on tone and detail. In The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, contrast is not quite so notable. Lorrain uses a marked lessening of detail, instead, to indicate a view fading away into the distance.

The main points I’ve taken from looking at Lorrain’s work are:

  • idealised
  • classical
  • dramatic lighting
  • ‘theatrical’ framing devices
  • use of colour to create points of focus
JMW Turner, River Landscape with Distant Mountain,  c.1793

JMW Turner, River Landscape with Distant Mountain, c.1793

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was greatly influenced by Lorrain, as is evident in River Landscape with Distant Mountain (c.1793, see above). From his work, he ‘learnt how to build a composition, to use aerial perspective, and how to paint light reflected in water’ (Dorment, 2012). Many of the devices illustrated in Lorrain’s pictures previously in this post can be seen in Turner’s painting – most notably here, the framing (in this case, by trees), and the use of aerial perspective (greater detail in foreground giving way to a more obscure background, painted in increasingly greyer shades). Another of his works that is strongly reminiscent of Lorrain is Thomson’s Æolian Harp (1809, see below). In addition to the grand employment of aerial perspective, the idealised classical motifs are present.

JMW Turner, Thomson's Æolian Harp, 1809

JMW Turner, Thomson’s Æolian Harp, 1809

However, I feel that Turner’s work became more interesting, and far more exciting, once he moved on from presenting an idealised past, focusing instead on the drama of the present (for example, in Venice Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute, below). Here, the atmosphere is quite changed. It feels less like paying homage to the past, and more like genuine expression and exploration, especially of light. The same rules of perspective are employed, though – detailed foreground featuring more strongly contrasting tones, giving way to a sketchier middle ground, vanishing into an almost entirely indistinct background. There is little actual detail in the buildings, and yet they are entirely ‘readable’. The gondolas anchor the scene, giving some degree of solidity and mass, making the broad swathes of blue, orange and yellow across the sky seem all the more explosive. ‘Turner was less concerned with painting specific places than with the dramatic possibilities of sea and air, and with the motion of the elements. Light was his theme’ (V&A, 2013).

JMW Turner, Venice Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute, c.1840

JMW Turner, Venice Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute, c.1840

There is a vibrancy and power in Turner’s work that I simply don’t find in Lorrain’s. ‘The works of J.M.W. Turner… represent movement, mechanised power, and the forces of nature, making them wonderful examples of atmospheric perspective. Turner used paint in a manner that draws attention to light and atmosphere, overwhelming any references to linear perspective. Turner felt that linear perspective could describe physical reality, but atmospheric perspective could reveal a greater spirituality’ (Prenhall, 2013).

JMW Turner, Rain Steam and Speed the Great Western Railway, 1844

JMW Turner, Rain Steam and Speed the Great Western Railway, 1844

Main points from Turner:

  • use of light to convey atmosphere
  • economy of detail need not hinder ability to ‘read’ a picture


Art Studio Chalkboard (2012),  Aerial Perspective [Online], Available at  (Accessed 11 November 2013).

Dorment, R. (2012), ‘Turner Inspired: in the Light of Claude, National Gallery, review’, The Telegraph, 12 March [Online], Available at (Accessed 12 November 2013).

Prenhall (2013), Atmospheric Perspective [Online], Available at (Accessed 12 November 2013).

Trang, C. (2013),  The Ideal Classical Landscape in Lorrain’s The Judgement of Paris [Online], Available at (Accessed 11 November 2013).

University of Virginia (2013), Claude [Online],  Available at (Accessed 11 November 2013).

V&A (2013), British Watercolours 1750-1900: J M W Turner and John Ruskin – Turner’s ‘golden visions’ [Online], (Accessed 12 November 2013).