Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Return of Marcus Sextus, after Pierre-Narcisse Guérin


Not on display
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and chalk on paper
Support: 128 x 114 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest LXXII 47 a

Catalogue entry

Guérin’s (Pierre-Narcisse, Baron Guérin 1774–1833) picture, correctly identified by Finberg, was first shown in the Paris Salon of 1799. It met with great acclaim, inspiring poetic and literary tributes and the painter’s colleagues to decorate its frame with garlands. In its original form it had depicted the blind Belisarius returning home to find his wife dead and his daughter in mourning, but as Jacques-Louis David and François Gerard had recently painted this subject, Guérin restored his hero’s sight and turned him into an imaginary victim of civil war in ancient Rome, banished into exile by Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The new theme had a topical resonance for émigrés forced to flee the recent Terror (1793–4) or now venturing back to France under the Consulate. As his inscription indicates, Turner did not draw the picture in the Louvre (nor in the artist’s studio as stated by Faroult and Solkin), but at the Place des Victoires where its then owner, the cloth manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Decretôt, had his showrooms and residence (nos.2, 8 and 12). Decretôt bought the picture from Guérin in February 1800 and sold it to Lucien Bonaparte in May 1803. The early history of the picture, prior to its acquisition for the French national collections in 1830, is told in detail by Josette Bottineau.1
Turner’s drawing (made with the sketchbook inverted) is treated as an exercise in chiaroscuro, little if any surface colour having been added to the graphite but the grey wash preparation being presumably moistened, and highlights raised by scratching out. It conflates Guérin’s composition, reducing the subject to portrait format and omitting the brazier behind the couch. Joseph Farington’s diary provides the clue to its date. Aware that the picture had been ‘crowned by the French Artists’, Farington reported an afternoon visit to see it and to meet Guérin on 1 October, specifically with the painters Henry Fuseli and Martin Archer Shee. He does not mention Turner by name but his added ‘&c’ must refer to him as Turner had been part of the same company on visits to the Louvre and to other French artists during the morning. Farington’s view was that the work ‘had more of the requisites to form a good picture than any I had seen by a Modern French Artist...There was too much of the French in it; but there was form and light & Shade...We readily agree that it merits distinction, but it seems remarkable that the French should give a preference to that which deviated most from their manner’.2 However, Farington also noted that praise for Guérin was not unanimous, and although the Marcus Sextus was the only modern work Turner copied in Paris, Farington reported that Marguerite Gerard was the one artist he excepted from his general contempt for the current French school; ‘he held it very low, – all made up of Art’.3

David Blayney Brown
July 2005

Bottineau 1993, p.48.
Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol.V, New Haven and London 1979, p.1891.
Ibid., p.1900 (4 October 1802)

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