Catalogue entry

346. [N00517] Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace Exh. 1832

THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON (517)

Mahogany, 36 1/16 × 27 7/8 (91·5 × 71)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (41, ‘Shadrach, Meshech and Abednego’ 3'0" × 2' 3/4"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1905.

Exh. R.A. 1832 (355); R.A. 1974–5 (B39).

Lit. Ruskin 1857 (1903–12, xiii, pp. 135–6, 156–7); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 321; ii, pp. 112, 183–4; 1877, pp. 273, 324–5, 448; Bell 1901, p. 120 no. 181; Armstrong 1902, p. 232; Whitley 1930, p. 235; Falk 1938, p. 136; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 335, 493 no. 381; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 44; Lindsay 1966, p. 174; Gage 1969, p. 243 n. 95; Reynolds 1969, p. 160; Reynolds 19692, pp. 74–5, pl. 11; Wilton 1979, p. 210; Gage 1980, pp. 5–6.

Exhibited at the R.A. in 1832 with no actual title but the text:

‘Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and said, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, come forth and come hither. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came forth of the midst of the fire.’—Daniel, chap. iii, ver. 26.

The picture was painted in friendly competition with George Jones who related the circumstances in his manuscript reminiscences now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: ‘Another instance of Turner's friendly contests in Art, arose, from his asking me what I intended to paint for the ensuing Exhibition. I told him that I had chosen the delivery of Shadrach Mesheck, and Abednego from the Fiery Furnace—“a good subject, I will paint it also, what size do you propose?” Kitcat. “Well, upright or length way,”? upright. “Well I'll paint it so—have you ordered your panel”? no—I shall order it tomorrow—"Order two and desire one to be sent to me, and mind I never will come into your room without inquiring what is on the easel; that I may not see it—Both pictures were painted and exhibited, our brother Academicians thought that Turner had secretly taken an advantage of me and were surprised at our mutual contentment little suspecting our previous friendly arrangement; they very justly gave his picture a much superior position to mine, but he used his utmost endeavours to get my work changed to the place his occupied & his placed where mine hung, they were exactly the same size’ (Gage 1980, loc. cit.).

Jones' picture was bought by Robert Vernon and is now also in the Tate Gallery, and his account is supported by the fact that both pictures are on identical mahogany panels, similar in size, supplied by R. Davy. Turner's panel is inscribed on the back, ‘JMW Turner RA/No 2 ’, perhaps by Turner himself when sending the work in to the Royal Academy.

Only one reviewer, writing in the Examiner for 10 June 1832, seems to have compared the two works and that not very charitably: ‘All that can be said for his [Jones'] Nebuchadnezzar, No. 256 [N05505], is, that it is not so absurdly treated by him as by his brother academician Mr. Turner, who, in No. 355 [N00371], has painted the same subject without the slightest display of character or expression, but with his accustomed ignorance of the human form.’ This condemnation of Turner's figures was echoed by the Athenacum for 16 June. Fraser's Magazine for July dismissed it as one of Turner's ‘unintelligible pieces of insanity’, and the Morning Post of 29 May as ‘a kind of phantasmagoric extravaganza ... in which the reds have prevailed’, which ‘ought itself to be put into the mouth of a fiery furnace’. The Spectator, 12 May, exclaimed that ‘its glare is scorching; we hope the Academy is insured—or perhaps the picture is painted on canvas of asbestos’, while the Literary Gazette for 19 May said that it had been hung opposite a sea-piece ‘in order to prevent the room from becoming damp. Certainly, since the introduction of chrome, more fires have broken out in art than formerly; and this is one of them.’

An exception to this negative criticism was the Library of Fine Arts for June 1832, which described the picture as ‘one of those extraordinary flights in which Mr. Turner is so often so fond of indulging, to the astonishment and unfeigned delight of one half of the world of art, and the astonishment and self-conceited supercilious remarks of the other ... The figures are almost unintelligible—they flit before us, as they ought to do, in a superhuman manner, but to our mind it is impossible to conceive a finer effect of lurid light than is here portrayed. The picture is a small one ... we should delight to see it attempted on a larger scale, believing it would be a great trial even to Mr. Turner's powers to give a large finished picture of what would, if successful, be a truly wonderful performance.’ For Richard Westmacott's comment on this picture see No. 342 [N00516].

The paint structure of this work is complex, with some details having been painted in watercolour. There are wide bituminous cracks in the thicker paint and dark shadows.

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