Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Tenth Plague of Egypt

exhibited 1802

On display at Tate Britain

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1435 x 2362 mm
frame: 1667 x 2590 x 107 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

This painting illustrates a passage from the Bible describing one of the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians as divine punishment for enslaving the Jewish people: the killing of all the first-born sons of the Egyptians. It is uncomfortably crowded by threatening atmospheric effects, emphasising the power of forces beyond mankind’s control.

Turner exhibited the picture just a couple of months after being admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy, and clearly intended viewers to recognise his skills in the highest branch of painting – the historical ‘grand style’ – claiming for himself the mantle of earlier artists like Poussin

Gallery label, February 2010

Catalogue entry

17. [N00470] The Tenth Plague of Egypt Exh. 1802

Canvas, 56 1/2 × 93 (142 × 236)
Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (24, ‘The 10th Plague’ 7'9" × 4'9 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.
Exh. R.A. 1802 (153); Tate Gallery 1931 (10).

Engr. By W. Say for the Liber Studiorum, R.61, published 1 January 1816 with the classification ‘H’ for Historical (repr. Finberg 1924, p. 243; the preliminary pen and sepia drawing, CXVIII-H, and etching repr, p. 242). The composition, through containing the same elements, is compressed laterally and a shaft of lightning introduced.

Lit. Farington Diary 1 May 15 June 1802, 12 October 1812; Ruskin 1843 (1903–12, iii, pp. 240–41); Cunningham 1852, pp. 8–9; Thornbury 1862, i, p. 264; 1877, pp. 345, 419; Monkhouse 1879, p. 49; Bell 1901, pp. 61, 78–9 no. 97; Armstrong 1902, pp. 48–9, 221; Finberg 1924, p. 243; Davies 1946, p. 186; Clare 1951, pp. 29–30, repr. p. 28; Finberg 1961, pp. 77, 80, 171, 195, 465 no. 75; Ziff 1963, pp. 316–21, pl. 44; Rothenstein and Butlin 1964, pp. 11–12, 16, pl. 19; Lindsay 1966, p. 77; Gage 1980, p. 244; Wilton 1980, pp. 69, 135; Verdi 1981, p. 398.

Accompanied in the 1802 R.A. catalogue by the following lines from Exodus xii, 29–30:

Ver. 29. 'And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land.

Ver. 30. ‘And Pharoah rose, he and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.’

Farington, on 1 May 1802, mentions that ‘Turners Murder of the Innocents’, presumably this picture in the absence of any more likely candidate, was among those works ‘noticed by many’, and on 3 May he included Turner's ‘Tenth Plague of Egypt’ in a short list of five ‘favourite pictures’. On 15 June he records Smirke's opinion: ‘He thought the large picture by Turner “The [Plague] in Egypt”, an extraordinary production. —He was surprised at it.’

The picture was singled out by the Monthly Mirror for June 1802: ‘... it aspires to the ideal imitation of nature ... Forests, cities, and storms, are combined to excite the idea of grandeur.’ The critic went on to warn that ‘There is a false as well as a true sublime, and both present the same surface to the first glances of the eye. The merits of this picture are, however, many and great.’

This picture was priced at £400 in a note, probably of c. 1810, in Turner's ‘Finance’ sketchbook (CXXII-36; for the date see Nos 53 and No.56 [N00474]).

The Tenth Plague is more dramatic than The Fifth Plage of two years earlier, reflecting, Ziff suggests, the influence of Poussin's Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, at that time in the collection of the Earl of Ashburnham (Städelesches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main).

The paint surface is badly damaged and overpainted in the middle ground in a large area extending from the trees on the left to the centre of the picture. Some of the glazes have also been lost, particularly in the sky.

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