Women in the art realm have rarely been depicted with dignity. Even using them as allegories takes away their inherent worth as a human being in a specific time and place. In his literary inspired paintings, Claude Lorrain reverses this trope. Lorrain draws from secular texts such as Virgil’s The Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but he also pulls from sacred texts, such as the Bible. In ancient literature as well as in art, women were portrayed as objects used for pleasure and reproduction, and if they did not comply, they were forced into doing so. Lorrain’s paintings begin to break away from this myth.
From The Aeneid, Lorrain paints the Trojan women sick of wandering, and burning their ships to ensure they would never have to leave again. He depicts them as strong and singular minded, both ideal Roman qualities, but meant only for men. He also paints Dido, the only heroic woman figure in The Aeneid, saying farewell to Aeneas.
From Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lorrain focuses on the rape of Europa and the story of Acis and Galatea. Both tell of violence and manipulation against women, but Lorrain is skillful in his representation, creating pieces that, without their titles, are simply lovely landscapes with figures. Lastly, Lorrain paints scenes from the Bible. The two pieces in this show portray a wedding party and the dismissal of Hagar. Claude Lorrain, unlike other artists during his time, paints women fully clothed and in dignified positions, even when the circumstances are shameful, implying that he believed women, while different from men, were nonetheless equal and capable of heroic acts and worthy of dignity.
Claude Lorrain, The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet
1643, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In “The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet,” Claude Lorrain communicates the incredible strength within femininity through the postures and clothing of the women. He does not paint the women as savages, but instead chooses to draw out the fact that women are meant to be beautiful, and there is a kind of power found in that. All of the women are clothed, indicating that they are human beings with dignity, not objects to be ogled at. In ancient literature, women were treated as property, but Lorrain depicts them at a moment of power and stability instead of vulnerability, challenging the cultural norm and view of women within literature.
Claude Lorrain, Landscape With Aeneas and Dido in Carthage
1676, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
In The Aeneid, Dido is the only strong, heroic, female character. Aeneas is the embodiment of Roman virtue, and Dido is commonly viewed as his equal counterpart. Dido’s femininity lends to her strength; it does not detract from it. While Dido is not facing forward in the painting, she is clearly the focal point. Aeneas, her male counterpart, is almost indistinguishable from the other men in the painting. Her posture is one of poise and grace, communicating that she is dignified and worthy, a real human in time and space, not an object or an allegory.
Claude Lorrain, Coast Scene with the Rape of Europa
1667, oil on canvas, The British Museum
The Rape of Europa was a popular subject for artists during Lorrain’s time. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the rape of Europa is anything but dignified. She is manipulated by Jupiter in the form of a bull, and is carried out to sea in order that he might have her as his mistress. The word “rape” conjures up images of violence against women, and this rape, while not exactly what viewers picture, is nonetheless destructive. It is a deliberate manipulation of a woman to satisfy a man, negatively changing her life forever. However, Lorrain’s depiction of Europa, even in a moment of forced shame, is still one of grace and beauty. Without the title, this painting is simply a lovely landscape with a few female figures. With it, however, Lorrain’s view of women as human beings and therefore worthy of dignity is again brought to light.
Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Acis and Galatea
1657, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery)
Drawing again from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lorrain this time focuses on a moment of passion between Acis and Galatea. A cyclops by the name of Polyphemus fell in love with Galatea and threatened to kill Acis unless Galatea returned his advances. Galatea refused, and Polyphemus crushed Acis underneath a rock. The manipulation of women in this work is evident through Galatea’s story. However, Lorrain’s portrayal of Galatea, even in the midst of a passionate moment, is still respectful, showing her fully clothed. She is still feminine and graceful, but in a way that invites the viewer to see her as more than just an object. It is a representation of an intimate moment between Acis and Galatea, giving them equal footing, where neither is better than the other. 
Claude Lorrain, Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah
1648, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London, UK
Lorrain’s paintings that portray events in the Bible further the fact that his view of women was that of equals, not simply figures used as allegories. They are real people that lived in a real place. Lorrain’s choice of painting a wedding party forces the viewer to look closely in order to discern which figures are male and which are female. The fact that he painted all of the figures equally in stature and value implies that, to him, women and men are different, but not different in a way that makes them unequal.
Claude Lorrain, The Expulsion of Hagar
1668, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
Hagar’s story is a tragic one, but also one of great hope and provision. After following her master Abraham’s orders to sleep with him so as to give him an heir, she is expelled from his household as a result of his wife’s anger. In this painting, Lorrain depicts the moment at which Abraham is instructing her to leave. Even in this moment of intense shame and unfairness, Lorrain still portrays Hagar with worth and dignity. Her son, Ishmael, is standing at her side, indicating that she still has a sense of purpose, even though she is leaving the place she has known as home for so long. Her clothing is modest, not accentuating her curves but simply acting as a covering for her as a human being. Lorrain is harping on the fact that even though Hagar is being shamed by the one who claimed to have her best interest at heart, her worth as a human being is not diminished.