Catalogue entry

401. [N00533] The Opening of the Wallhalla, 1842 Exh. 1843

THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON (533)

Mahogany, 44 5/16 × 79 (112·5 × 200·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (26, ‘The Wallhalla’ 6'5 1/2" × 3'7 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1929.

Exh. R.A. 1843 (14); Congress of European Art, Munich 1845; Whitechapel 1953 (96, repr.); Age of Neo-ClassicismR.A., September–November 1972 (1186).

Lit. Ruskin 1843, and letter to Mrs John Simon, 28 November 1857 (1903–12, iii, p. 249 n.; xxxvi, p. 270); G.K. Nägler, Neues Allgemeines Künstler-Lexicon xix 1849, p. 163; Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 347–8; 1877, p. 466; Hamerton 1879, p. 294; Richard Owen, The Life of Richard Owen 1894, i, p. 263; Eastlake 1895, i, p. 189; Bell 1901, p. 146 no. 236; Armstrong 1902, pp. 157, 205, 236; MacColl 1920, p. 22; Falk 1938, p. 181; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 395–6, 404, 414–15, 507 no. 550; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, p. 56; Lindsay 1966, p. 250 n. 11; 19662, p. 52; Robert Rosenblum, Transformations in late Eighteenth Century Art 1967, p. 139, pl. 161; Reynolds 1969, pp. 185–6, pl. 157; Vaughan 1979, p. 472; Wilton 1982, pp. 26–8, repr.

Exhibited in 1843 with the following caption referring to Napoleon:

L'honneur au Roi de Baviere’:
‘Who rode on thy relentless car, fallacious Hope?
He, though scathed at Ratisbon, poured on
The tide of war o'er all thy plain, Bavare,
Like the swollen Danube at the gates of Wien.
But peace returns—the morning ray
Beams on the Wallhalla, reared to science, and the arts,
For men renowned, of German fatherland’.

Fallacies of Hope, M.S.

The Walhalla is a temple in the Doric style on the Danube about five miles from Regensburg, designed by Leo von Klenze. The foundation stone was laid by Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1830 and it was finally opened in 1842. Turner had seen it on his return from Venice in 1840 and there is a drawing in the ‘Venice, Bamburg and Coburg’ sketchbook (CCCX-70). The picture was, as Turner's caption indicates, a tribute to the King of Bavaria and in 1845 he sent it to the ‘Congress of European Art’, the opening exhibition at the new ‘Temple of Art and Industry’ in Munich; the wife of Turner's friend, the anatomist and naturalist Sir Richard Owen, had translated part of the programme for the exhibition, as she recorded in her diary on 8 August 1845.

The article on Turner in Nägler's Künstler-Lexicon gives a near-contemporary account of the German reaction to the picture. ‘The painting caused a sensation because it was seen as a pure satire on this kind of celebration. One knew Turner from the lovely steel engravings after his drawings and imagined, therefore, that one had been honoured with a lampoon by him. If the later works of this master show the same kind of treatment, they could be taken as proof of the worst and most ludicrous kind of confusion into which art can get. When looking at this picture, it was impossible to comprehend that the artist had once painted good pictures and knew how to produce beautiful effects of light and colour. Pictures of the above-mentioned kind show neither sense nor understanding. One would like to see these productions as a cheerful satire if only they were not, unfortunately, so patently meant to be taken seriously. For his contribution to the Munich art exhibition he goes down in history on page 198 of the Kunstblatt 1846, as a dauber. At the same time we note that in England too, the degeneration of such an outstanding talent is regretted. Some of his works are seen only as curiosities of the art of painting.’

The picture returned from Munich damaged and was seen by Elizabeth Rigby, later Lady Eastlake, when she visited Turner's studio on 20 May 1846. ‘The old gentleman was great fun: his splendid picture of “Walhalla” had been sent to Munich, there ridiculed as might be expected, and returned to him with 71[£] to pay, and sundry spots upon it: on this Turner laid his odd misshapen thumb in a pathetic way. Mr. Munro suggested they would rub out, and I offered my cambric handkerchief; but the old man edged us away, and stood before his picture like a hen in a fury.’

But Ruskin, discussing the poor technique of some of Turner's oil paintings, says that ‘No picture of Turner's is seen in perfection a month after it is painted. The Walhalla cracked before it had been eight days in the Academy rooms ...’ However, apart from two cracks running into the panel from the left and right-hand edges, the picture is in relatively good condition for a work of this size, support and period.

In England the Walhalla was generally well received by the press, if only in comparison with Turner's other works of recent years. For the Morning Chronicle of 9 May 1843, it was ‘one of the most intelligible pictures he has exhibited for many years’, a view echoed by the Athenaeum for 17 June and the Spectator for 13 May, which also described it as ‘a superb landscape composition’, though ‘the group of figures and emblems ... is one of those licences of art which Turner exercises to give effect to his pictures.’ Even Blackwood's Magazine, August 1843, found the picture ‘far the best’ of Turner's exhibits; ‘indeed it has its beauties; distances are happily given: most absurd are the figures, and the inconceivable foreground.’ The Times for 9 May, however, dismissed the picture as ‘One of Mr. Turner's clever perpetrations.’

The Illustrated London News for 20 May gave the picture a long eulogy, beginning ‘This is a noble picture, full of the poetry of the art ... Mr. Turner, in dealing with this great subject, appears to have soared beyond his besetting sins, and for once to have leapt within the limits of propriety.’ The review continued by recommending ‘to the notice of artists—and especially young ones-the quality of Mr. Turner's colours, and his peculiar mode of applying them to the canvass. His pigments are generally very much diluted, and seem to be laid on the canvass, not in broad heavy flats of colour, but by a successive elaboration of touches, each one more delicate and slightly differing in tint from its predecessor. It is in this way, we believe, he has succeeded, beyond all other artists, in getting the atmosphere—the colour—the depth of nature itself into his pictures.’

More critical was the Art Union for June 1843. ‘The landscape is by no means generally eligible, but this is of no moment, the object of the artist being to paint light and atmosphere; and how far he may be successful, will be better shown half a century hence than now. The admirers of Mr. Turner say, indeed, that Time will restore him to the high fame of which Time has deprived him. Yet those who see this picture, and here make a first acquaintance with the artist, will find it difficult to believe that he once painted pictures of chaste, delicate, and surpassing beauty—as true to nature as Nature is to herself ... The picture is a whirlpool, or a whirlpool of colours; neither referring to fact, nor appealing to the imagination.’

In a letter to Mrs John Simon of 28 November 1857 Ruskin quotes the Walhalla, among other works, as an example of Turner's failure with human figures.

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