View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Probably an unfinished watercolour rather than a preparatory colour study, this is based on a monochrome drawing in the Grenoble sketchbook (Tate D04500; Turner Bequest LXXIV 8), itself worked up from a first sketch made in the same book (Tate D40200) as Turner travelled in 1802. A label inscribed by Turner ‘Chateau de Aoust’ must have been attached to the monochrome when it was mounted in an album compiled by the artist, and accounted for the titles used when the watercolour and monochrome were exhibited together in the early Turner display at Marlborough House. As observed by David Hill, the building is the Château d’Argent, seen as Turner approached Villeneuve in the Val d’Aosta from the Fort Roch road. The towers of the castle are silhouetted against the snowy slopes of Mount Emilius.
The monochrome drawing is classically composed, framed by trees on both sides, and includes a flock of sheep in the foreground. In the watercolour, Turner kept only the trunks of the left-hand trees and omitted most of the sheep. In Paris on his way home from the Alps in 1802, he told Joseph Farington that ‘The weather was very fine’1 and although painted from memory the watercolour vividly conveys a sunlit day with clear, crystalline air and snow sparkling on the mountain top. These effects survive despite considerable fading, not least because the highlights are made by stopping out or leaving the white paper exposed.
Ruskin’s Marlborough House catalogue entry for this work is highly critical:
This drawing, which I found in another parcel, is placed with the pencil study [D04500] of which it is the amplification, that it may be seen how much the painter was yet hampered by old rules and formal precedents. He is still trying to tame the Alps into submission to Richard Wilson; but finds the result unsatisfactory, and leaves it unfinished.
But I am much puzzled by the feebleness of the drawing, and could almost imagine it a pupil’s copy from one of Turner’s. The laying in of the clouds, however, cannot but be his; and it is to be noted in general, that while, during his first period, his handling was bold both in pencil and oil-colour, his water-colours were frequently delicate, and even, in the present instance, timid, in the extreme.2