The Seal of the Covenant [The Rainbow] by Atkinson Grimshaw. 1868. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x W 91.4 cm. Leeds City Art Gallery. Accession number LEEAG.PA.1947.0021.0001. Gift from F. G. Simpson, 1947. Click on image to enlarge it.

Commentary by George P. Landow

The Leeds City Art Gallery contains a landscape by Atkinson Grimshaw that is especially intriguing to anyone interested in iconology. In particular, Grimshaw's oil painting reveals much about the difficulties nineteenth century artists and writers faced when they attempted to transform facts of nature into paradigmatic images, tropes, or situations. This representation of a mountain stream with rainbow has little to differentiate it visually from other carefully observed nineteenth-century representations of nature in its rougher aspect. Utilizing the sharp declivities of rock-walled valleys on both sides of his canvas, the painter carries our eye into a picture space that has a remarkably conservative — that is, remarkably Claudean or Wilsonian — organization for a work of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Hillsides replace the Claudean (or Turnerian) tree, but the same motifs divide the picture into foreground, middle distance, and distance, while the traditional winding stream serves to unite these spatial zones. Within this rocky world a single shepherd and his small flock provide the only life and the only sense of scale; and this figure's back, perhaps significantly, is turned away from the beautiful rainbow that reaches down from the sky to touch the earth not far from where he stands. This rainbow serves as an important compositional element, creating the second half of an ellipse, the first part of which is formed by the steep hillside on the right.

Grimshaw's painting differs from most nineteenth-century portrayals of the rainbow, which most often depict it above either a flat, open plain or a woodland scene, but like them it uses one of nature's more lovely optical phenomena to provide a striking visual motif. It does not, however, seem to have anything that distinguishes it iconsographically from other pictures of the rainbow, such as Constable's Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow (1836, Tate Gallery) or Turner's Buttermere Lake (1798, Tate Gallery). One is thus somewhat jarred to discover that Grimshaw has chosen to call his work The Seal of the Covenant, thereby claiming a religious significance for the scene before us which it does not seem to warrant. In other words, the verbal context this title provides for the visual image does not match our experience of it.

The Seal of the Covenant is not unique among nineteenth-century works of art and literature in the problematic uses it makes of this traditional landscape motif. J. T. Linnell's The Rainbow (1863), now in the Forbes Magazine Collection, similarly directs the spectator to perceive an ordinary English landscape existing within the context of biblical events. — "Rainbows: problematic images of problematic nature" in Images of Crisis, pp. 157-58


Landow, George P. Images of Crisis: Literary Iconograophy, 1750 to the Present. London: Routled, 1982. [full text]

Last modified 8 June 2021