Spectacular skies: dawns and dusks in our collections

View of Dordrecht (from the Maas) by Aelbert Cuyp

The extravagant spectacle of a dazzling sunrise or a magnificent sunset is one of nature’s most dramatic displays, with the sun’s rays transforming the sky in a kaleidoscope of colours. Many artists have tried to capture these fleeting moments, inspired by the warmth and depth of the colours.

Here, we share a selection of the most notable works of art from our collections that portray some aspect of the beauty, magnificence and tranquillity of dawn and dusk.

Golden dawns

Pether painting, 'A River Landscape with a Castle at Sunrise'

A River Landscape with a Castle at Sunrise

This imaginary landscape hangs on the walls of The Vyne, Hampshire. It's by English artist Sebastian Pether (1790–1844) and is full of intricate details, including a herdsman crossing the bridge with his cows and a pair of figures by the water’s edge.

'A Morning Landscape with a Triumphal Arch' by William Ashford

A Morning Landscape with a Triumphal Arch

Another fantasy landscape, this time by William Ashford (1746–1824), depicts the romantic ruin of a triumphal arch silhouetted against a golden morning sky. Painted in 1777, it's now part of the collection at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire.

Landmarks in half-light

Painting 'Windsor from the River' by George Cole

Windsor from the River

The distinctive shape of Windsor Castle can be seen against the golden glow of the early morning sun low in the sky in this oil painting by George Cole (1810–1883) in the collection at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. The barge and horses in the foreground add to the tranquillity of this river scene.

Painting by Henry Dawson entitled 'The New Houses of Parliament and the Thames'

The New Houses of Parliament and the Thames

Also known as ‘Sunset on the Thames near Westminster with the New Houses of Parliament’, this painting hangs in the Drawing Room of Tyntesfield, Bristol. It is by Henry Dawson (1811-1878), a self-taught artist from Kingston-upon-Hull. J.M.W. Turner was a big influence on Dawson, as can be seen from the atmospheric style of this painting.

Painting 'Caernarvon Castle at Sunset' by James Francis Danby

Caernarvon Castle at Sunset

The imposing structure of Caernarvon Castle, Gwynedd, is the subject of this oil painting by James Francis Dalby (1816-1875). The castle is perched on the banks of the River Seiont and Dalby beautifully captures the delicate colours of the setting sun reflected in the water.

Painted ceiling depicting Aurora by Borgnis

Aurora

In Greco-Roman mythology, Aurora was the personification of dawn. According to the legend, she would fly across the sky each morning to announce the arrival of the sun. She is most famously depicted in the ‘Aurora’ fresco in Rome, painted by 17th-century Italian artist Guido Reni. Aurora is shown in a billowing yellow dress, scattering flowers as she leads out the chariot of Apollo, the sun god. Reni’s composition has been much copied over the centuries. Rievaulx Terrace, North Yorkshire, has this version, a tempera paint on plaster ceiling fresco by Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis (1701-1761).

Seascapes and sunlight

Oil painting 'Off the Coast near Flamborough Head' by Thomas Richardson

Off the Coast near Flamborough Head

Thomas Miles Richardson was one of the most prominent artists in Newcastle in the first half of the 19th century. This portrayal of the sea off the Yorkshire coast is suffused with the warm tones of the setting sun. It is part of the collection at Cragside, Northumberland.

Painting 'The Silver of Morning' by James Thomas Watts

The Silver of Morning

In this watercolour at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire, the clear light of morning is beautifully captured by James Watts (1853–1930), as are the reflections of the sunlight in the water. Born in Birmingham, Watts was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement with its emphasis on realism in paintings.

Painting 'A Seascape with Yachts at Sunset' by James Webb

A Seascape with Yachts at Sunset

British painter James Webb (1820-1895) specialised in maritime views. His painting at Lyme, Cheshire, shows a shoreline full of activity, set against a golden sky. Some figures seem to be hunting for shellfish, while others watch the boats sailing past.

Painting in the elements

Some painters felt that the best way to capture the colours and atmosphere of the sky was to work outdoors, as John Chu, National Trust Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, explains:

‘When an artist paints out in the landscape instead of inside the studio, it is known as working “en plein air”, which is French for "in the open air".

'Although this might present obstacles (think of the wind, rain and insects), the results can more than make up for it.

'Working in front of the view allows you to respond directly to nature’s fleeting effects of light, colour and atmosphere.

'Sometimes, if a painter works with enough skill and speed, a sense of how they felt in that moment, as well as what they could see, is captured forever.’

John Constable (1776–1837) regularly painted outside. This oil sketch of Harnham Ridge, near Salisbury, in the collection at Upton House, Warwickshire, was painted en plein air.

 

" Working in front of the view allows you to respond directly to nature’s fleeting effects of light, colour and atmosphere."

Vernet’s ‘The Four Times of Day’

Landscapes at sunset

Oil painting, 'Woodcutters' by Thomas Gainsborough

The Woodcutters

Part of the collection at Dunster Castle, Somerset, this oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) shows an evening landscape. In the half-light two woodcutters can be seen loading their bundles of sticks onto the back of a donkey.

Painting, 'Evening Sun' by Margaret L. R. Tudor

Evening Sun

The beautiful colours in this impressionistic oil painting perfectly capture the golden tones of the evening sun. It is the work of amateur 20th-century artist Margaret L. R. Tudor and, alongside many of her other paintings, is part of the collection at A La Ronde, Devon.

Painting, ''Sudbury Hall from the South, Evening by Nicholas Dall

Sudbury Hall from the South, Evening

Towards the end of his career, Danish painter Nicholas Dall (fl.1748-1776/7) composed this image that now hangs in Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire. The view is taken from a grove of trees and the clouds of the sky are tinged with the pink of the setting sun.

Tile panel by William Frend De Morgan at Wightwick Manor and Gardens, West Midlands

Sun motifs

A more stylised depiction of the sun rising can be seen on this set of tiles by William De Morgan at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands, with the face of the sun just peeping over the sea. One of the most important potters of the late 19th century, De Morgan (1839–1917) was part of the Arts and Crafts movement, designing ceramics for Morris & Co. Many of his designs and motifs were inspired by the natural world.

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