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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

February 2010