Catalogue entry

259. [N05504] Death on a Pale Horse (?) c. 1825–30

THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON (5504)

Canvas, 23 1/2 × 29 3/4 (60 × 75·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (? 160, I unidentified 2'6" × 2' 0"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1947.

Exh. Whitechapel 1953 (100); Tate Gallery 1959 (358); New York 1966 (5, repr. p. 24); Il Sacro e il Profano nell' Arte dei Simbolisti Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Turin, June–August 1969 (13, repr.); Dresden (9, repr.) and Berlin (12, colour pl. 29); R.A. 1974–5 (335); Leningrad and Moscow 1975–6 (30); Paris 1983–4 (49, repr.).

Lit. Davies 1946, p. 162; Gowing 1966, pp. 24–7, repr. p. 24; Reynolds 1969, p. 203, pl. 174; Gaunt 1971, p. 12, colour pl. 48; Wilton 1979, p. 210.

Formerly called ‘A Skeleton falling off a Horse in Mid-Air’, this picture has been identified as an illustration to the Book of Revelation, in particular the appearance of the pale horse bearing Death after the opening of the fourth seal (vi, 8); the skeleton's crown could have been suggested by that worn by the first horseman, who rides a white horse but also carries a bow (vi, 2). However, the slumped position of the rider does not suggest a conqueror with power over a fourth part of the earth. Nevertheless, Turner's somewhat confused choice of this subject could reflect his interest in a theme that was popular with the more imaginative neo-classical artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries such as Benjamin West, John Hamilton Mortimer, P.J. de Loutherbourg and William Blake. In addition Lawrence Gowing has suggested that the subject may have been inspired by the death of Turner's father in 1829.

The degree of rubbing and scratching away of the wet paint to produce special effects is unparalleled among Turner's oils but is found to a lesser extent in such works as George IV at the Provost's Banquet in Edinburgh of c. 1822 (Nos. 248), some of the Cowes sketches of 1827 (Nos. 264 [N02000] and 267 [N01999]), and Rocky Bay with Figures of c. 1830 (No. 434 [N01989]). The picture can therefore be tentatively dated to c. 1825–30.

Gage (exh. cat., Paris 1983–4, pp. 111–12) relates the technique more closely to that of the erotic figure studies in the ‘Fishing at the Weir’ sketchbook and the ‘Colour Studies I’ sketchbook (CCLXXXI and CCXCI(b) and dates the painting to c. 1830. He also relates the head of the horse to one of the more battered horses on the Parthenon frieze, as engraved by Stothard after Pars for Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens iv 1816, ch. iv, pls. vii and viii.

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