Catalogue entry

349. [N00370] Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace and Custom-House, Venice: Canaletti painting Exh. 1833

THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON (370)

Mahogany, 20 3/16 × 32 7/16 (51 × 82·5)

Coll. Robert Vernon, purchased at the R.A. 1833 for 200 guineas and given to the National Gallery 1847; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1912.

Exh. R.A. 1833 (109); Venice and Rome 1948 (37, repr.); Byron Victoria and Albert Museum 1974 (S40); R.A. 1974–5 (529, repr.).

Lit. ‘The Vernon Gallery: Venice, the Grand Canal’, Art Journal 1850, p. 92, engr. T.A. Prior; Hall i 1850, no. 33, engr. T.A. Prior, as ‘Venice.—The Grand Canal’; Hall 18512, p. 9 no. 59, as ‘Grand Canal, Venice’; Burnet 1852, pp. 106–7, engr., as ‘Scene on the Grand Canal at Venice’; Cunningham 1852, p. 32; Waagen 1854, i, p. 385, as one of ‘the two views of Venice’; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 322: ii, pp. 241–2; 1877, pp. 336, 449; Bell 1901, pp. 58, 70, 121 no. 184; Armstrong 1902, p. 234; MacColl 1920, p. 1; Finberg 1930, pp. 78–84, 155, pl. 14; Whitley 1930, p. 253; Finberg 1961, pp. 340–41, 493 no. 384; Herrmann 1963, p. 32, pl. 14; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 51–2, pl. 95; Brill 1969, pp. 18–19; Gage 1969, pp. 164, 168, 170, 243 n. 95, colour pl. 27; Reynolds 1969, pp. 158–61, pl. 141; George 1971, p. 87, pl. 4; Ziff 1971, p. 126; Wilton 1979, p. 205; Gage 1980, p. 5; Paulson 1982, p. 185 n. 6.

In Turner's list of the titles of his 1833 R.A. exhibits, now in the Tate Gallery archives, the punctuation is slightly different: ‘5. Bridge of Sighs, Ducal Palace & Custom House Venice. Canaletti painting.’ The title shows that this was in part a tribute to the most renowned of painters of Venetian vedute. Canaletto himself is shown painting away at a picture in a heavy gilt frame on the left, although Turner, of all artists, would have been aware of the unlikelihood of such a practice. The picture may also, as Graham Reynolds has suggested, have been in part inspired by the Venetian scenes of Bonington, whose death in 1828 had been followed by a large sale of his works in London in 1829 (see also Nos. 334 and 341).

But the immediate cause seems to have been friendly rivalry with one of his followers, William Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867), who exhibited Venice from the Dogana the same year. According to the Morning Chronicle for 6 June 1833 Turner did this picture ‘it is said, in two or three days, on hearing that Mr. Stanfield was employed on a similar subject—not in the way of rivalry of course, for he is the last to admit to anything of the kind, but generously, we will suppose, to give him a lesson in atmosphere and poetry.’ The same story was repeated by Allan Cunningham and by Arnold's Magazine for November 1833–April 1834, though Cunningham manages to refer to it both as ‘Venice and the Bridge of Sighs’ and as ‘Ducal Palace’, the title of the lost painting of the same year (see No. 352). Cunningham explains that it was because of this competition that Turner's picture was hung below the line, implying that this was because it was a late addition to the exhibition, to ‘teach Stanfield to paint a picture in two days’.

However, that Turner only decided on his subject two or three days before the opening of the exhibition, on seeing Stanfield's picture at the R.A. on the Varnishing Days, seems unlikely, as his detailed title, with its reference to Canaletto, would presumably have had to have been sent in beforehand. Stanfield's picture was in fact bought by his patron Lord Lansdowne, who had an important collection of Bonington's works, so the two possible causes for Turner's taking up Venetian subjects could have been interrelated.

The critics readily accepted Turner as the winner in this contest. The Spectator for 11 May 1833 said of the Stanfield, ‘it is cleverly painted, but the unavoidable comparison with the same subject by Turner is fatal to it. It is to Turner's picture what a mere talent is to genius.’ The Turner was described as ‘a most brilliant gem. The emerald waters, the bright blue sky, and the ruddy hue of the Ducal Palace, relieved by the chaste whiteness of the stone buildings around, combine to present a picture as bright, rich and harmonious in tone, as the actual scene painting can surpass the purity of the colour. It is a perfectly beautiful picture.’ For Arnold's Magazine (iii, 1833–4, pp. 408–9) ‘the juxtaposition brought out more glaringly the defects of Stanfield, and illustrated more strongly the fine powers of Turner. For, viewed from whatever distance, Turner's work displayed a brilliancy, breadth, and power, killing every other work in the exhibition’. The Morning Chronicle went on with its account of the Turner (see above) to say that ‘it is beautiful and replete in the greys on the left, &c, with his magical powers, so often disgraced in other pieces, and frittered away for pence in his little drawings.’ Here was a continuing theme of later criticism, which praised Turner's Venetian works while attacking his ‘extravagancies.’ The Athenaeum, 11 May, thought that Turner had worsted Canaletto as well, describing Turner's picture as ‘more his own that he seems aware of: he imagines he has painted it in the Canaletti style: the style is his, and worth Canaletti's ten times over.’

An anecdote by George Jones, in his manuscript reminiscences in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, suggests that it was Jones who won a second contest in the 1833 exhibition. Turner's Canaletti painting was hung next to Jones' Ghent which had a very blue sky. Turner jokingly put down Jones' bright colour by working on ‘the magical contrasts’ in his own picture, but Jones then added a great deal more white into his own sky, which made Turner's look much too blue. ‘The ensuing day, he saw what I had done, laughed heartily, slapped my back and said I might enjoy the Victory.’ George Jones went on to recommend Robert Vernon to buy the picture for 200 guineas, ‘which was the commencement of his [Turner's] large prices, for he said to me, “Well, if they will have such scraps instead of important pictures, they must pay for them”’. (Gage 1980, loc. cit.)

This was the first year in which Turner exhibited oil paintings of Venetian subjects; another picture, Ducal Palace, Venice is now lost (No. 352). To explain this sudden interest, so long after his visit to Venice of 1819, some scholars have suggested another visit in 1832, but the evidence points to Turner not having returned until the summer of 1833, after the R.A. exhibition (George 1971, pp. 84–7). It would seem that Turner only felt the urge to return to Venice in person after his artistic development had led him to embark on Venetian subjects for his oil paintings.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984