Joseph Mallord William Turner

Holy Family

exhibited 1803

On display at Tate Britain

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1022 x 1416 mm
frame: 1430 x 1810 x 150 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

While in his later exhibits Turner’s often referred to the works or styles of his contemporaries and fellow exhibitors, his early submissions measured themselves against the old masters. This picture was shown in 1803, the year after he had studied the great collections in the Louvre in Paris. Titian’s St. Peter Martyr (destroyed; see the reproductive print above) was then hanging there, having been removed from Venice by Napoleon’s troops, and was among his sources for his work.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

49. [N00473] Holy Family Exh. 1803

Canvas, 40 1/4 × 55 3/4 (102 × 141·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (69, ‘A Holy Family’ 4'10" × 3'6"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1803 (156); Tate Gallery 1931 (18); Whitechapel 1953 (72); R.A. 1974–5 (77).

Lit. Farington Diary 2 May 1803; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 264; 1877, p. 420; Hamerton 1879, p. 98; Bell 1901, pp. 61, 81 no. 103; Armstrong 1902, p. 223; Whitley 1928, p. 59; Davies 1946, p. 187; Finberg 1961, pp. 98–9, 171, 465 no. 85; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 16; Lindsay 1966, p. 230 n. 6; Gage 1969, p. 140, pl. 64; Reynolds 1969, p. 56, pl. 37; Herrmann 1975, pp. 14–15, 228, pl. 43; Wilton 1979, pp. 83–4, pl. 71; Ziff 1980, p. 168; Paulson 1982, pp. 72–3.

This picture and Venus and Adonis (No. 150), both influenced strongly by Titian, are interrelated in composition. The Holy Family may have been inspired in general terms by Titian's Holy Family and a Shepherd, sold with the W.Y. Ottley collection in London in January 1801 and now in the National Gallery (see Cecil Gould, National Gallery Catalogues: The Sixteenth Century Venetian School 1959, pp. 97–8), while Venus and Adonis owes a still closer debt to Titian's now destroyed St Peter Martyr altarpiece. This painting from SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (where Turner was later, in 1819, to copy a dètail of the foreground foliage and the Martyr's leg) had been looted by Napoleon and was seen by Turner in the Louvre during his visit in 1802; his notes on the picture cover three pages of the ‘Studies in the Louvre’ sketchbook (LXXII-28 verso, 28 and 27 verso). Well known in England already through engravings, it was eulogised by Turner in his 1811 lecture as Professor of Perspective at the R.A.: ‘the highest honour that landscape has as yet, she received from the hand of Titian; ... the triumph even of Landscape may be safely said to exist in his divine picture of St. Peter Martyr’ (see Jerold Ziff, ‘“Backgrounds, Introduction of Architecture and Landscape”: A Lecture by J.M.W. Turner’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes xxvi 1963, p. 135). (For Martino Rota's engraving after the Titian see Plate 568.)

The Holy Family was also originally based on the composition of Titian's Peter Martyr. A drawing in the ‘Calais Pier’ sketchbook shows the Holy Family in the setting, complete with flying putti above, of the Titian (LXXXI-63, repr. with both the Turners under discussion by Gage 1969, pls. 61–4; see also LXXXI-62). However, Turner decided on an oblong format, close even in size to the Ottley Titian, apparently following another drawing in the ‘Calais Pier’ sketchbook (LXXXI-60; there are further related drawings on LXXXI-44 and 47). The St Peter Martyr setting he then used for Venus and Adonis, datable for stylistic reasons to c. 1803–5. Jerrold Ziff also sees an influence from Lorenzo Lotto's Recognition of the Holy Child, copied by Turner in the Louvre in 1802 (LXXII-63), but his statement that the ‘arrangement of Turner's figures is similar to Lotto's Jesus, Joseph and Mary’ does not bear comparison with the original (repr. Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto, 1956 ed., pl. 297).

The serpent that slides away on the right of the Holy Family is presumably a traditional allusion to the Redeemer striking the serpent's head, though Gage also finds a connection with the confrontation of Apollo and the Python (No. 115, [N00488]) of c. 1803–11, and the nature symbolism of Jacob Boehme (op. cit., pp. 139–40).

The Holy Family was not well received in the press. The True Briton for 6 May, attacking the figures, concluded that ‘unless the artist can produce something better, we advise him to take an eternal farewell of History’, and John Britton in the British Press for 9 May, while noting ‘a bold and daring effort’, agreed with ‘a man of great taste, that Mr. Turner has ... spoilt a fine landscape by very bad figures.’ Farington recorded, on 2 May, Fuseli's judgment: ‘His Historical Picture “A Holy Family” He also thought like an embrio, or blot of a great Master of colouring.’

This picture was priced at £400 in a note, probably of c. 1810, in Turner's ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII-36; for the date see Nos. 53 and 56, [N00474]).

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