Joseph Mallord William Turner

St Benedetto, Looking towards Fusina

exhibited 1843

On display at Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 622 x 927 mm
frame: 872 x 1176 x 105 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This painting demonstrates Turner’s ability to capture and define the spirit of place. Despite the baffling absence of any church named San Benedetto, the view is an authentic Venetian prospect looking from the Giudecca Canal towards Fusina on the mainland. More than that, however, it was Turner’s stylistic treatment of colour, light and water which constituted the very essence of how people thought about Venice. This was most clearly expressed by John Ruskin who wrote that ‘without one single accurate detail’ it was ‘the likest thing to what it is meant for ... of all that I have ever seen’.

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

406. [N00534] St. Benedetto, looking towards Fusina Exh. 1843


Canvas, 24 1/2 × 36 1/2 (62·5 × 92)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (one of 18–21, 36–40; see No. 383); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1968.

Exh. R.A. 1843 (554); Amsterdam, Berne, Paris (repr.), Brussels, Liege (39), Venice (repr.) and Rome (repr.) (48) 1947–8; R.A. 1974–5 (535).

Lit. Ruskin 1843, 1860, 1857 and Notes on his Drawings by Turner 1878 (1903–12, iii, pp. 250, 546; vii, pp. 157–8; xiii, pp. 164–6, 454); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 348; 1877, p. 466; Hamerton 1879, pp. 266–7; Bell 1901, p. 148 no. 241; Armstrong 1902, p. 235; Finberg 1930, pp. 140, 144–8, 151, 157, pl. 27; Davies 1946, pp. 151, 186; Evans and Whitehouse 1956, p. 273; Davies 1959, pp. 98–9; Finberg 1961, p. 508 no. 555; Herrmann 1975, p. 51, pl. 164.

As Ruskin pointed out, the title is partly imaginary, there being no church of San Benedetto visible in this view looking west along the Canal della Giudecca towards Fusina. ‘The buildings on the right are also, for the most part, imaginary in their details, especially in the pretty bridge which connects two of their masses: and yet, without one single accurate detail, the picture is the likest thing to what it is meant for—the looking out of the Giudecca landwards, at sunset—of all that I have ever seen.’ In a letter to his father of 5 January 1850 Ruskin reported delightedly how he had seen a covered boat with a great curving rudder in the very place where Turner had shown one in his picture (presumably on the right, in the middle distance), and how, though this was no longer a regular service, it had been in Turner's day the regular cheap passage-boat to Padua via Fusina. ‘So it was by mere accident, a most lucky one, that I got this little illustration of Turner's putting everything in its own place.’ Thornbury, like the first official N.G. catalogue, calls it ‘“Approach to Venice, looking towards Fusina”, from a sketch made in 1839–40; sunset is approaching’. The sketch referred to is probably the watercolour of a similar view in the Turner Bequest, datable to 1840 (CCCXV-13).

This pictures does not seem to have attracted any individual comment in the press but it vied with The Sun of Venice (No. 402 [N00535]) for first place in Ruskin's estimation. In his notes on the Turners shown at Marlborough House in 1856 he wrote, ‘Take it all in all, I think this is the best Venetian picture of Turner's which he has left to us.’ In 1856 the condition of the picture was, according to Ruskin, ‘tolerably safe. The writer of the notes in the published catalogue is mistaken in supposing that the upper clouds have changed in colour; they were always dark purple, edged with scarlet; but they have got chilled and opaque. The blue in the distance has altered slightly, making the sun too visible a spot; but the water is little injured, and I think it the best piece of surface painting which Turner has left in oil colours’. Ruskin would, of course, have remembered how the picture had looked in 1843, but his later description (in his notes on his own Turner drawings of 1878) of the decay and ruin through cleaning and retouching of this and other Venetian oils seems exaggerated when one looks at them today after more recent treatment.

Robert Chignell, in his J. M. W. Turner, R.A., 1902, referring to Ruskin's observations, states that ‘The gold of the water, the gold of the air, the amber flame are all gone, and even the boatman can only with difficulty be distinguished.’ Sir A.H. Church comments further on how, ‘in a group of small clouds near the top of the picture, where vermilion and lake have been introduced, the vermilion remains, but the lake is now a pale yellowish brown’ (The Chemistry of Paints and Painting, fourth ed. 1915, p. 335). In addition there is some discoloured meguilp. The wonder is how unified and tonally satisfactory the picture looks today.

A copy with variations by J.B.Pyne, signed and dated 1858, was sold at Christie's on 30 July 1959 (53; 27 × 35 in.). As in the case of other paintings by Turner exhibited in his lifetime or by the National Gallery from 1856, a number of other copies of various periods are known, usually by unidentifiable artists.

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