Catalogue entry

[from] Works Painted in Rome, 1828–9

TURNER went to Rome for the second time in 1828, leaving England in August and arriving in October; he stayed until early January 1829, and was back in England in February. Sir Charles Eastlake told Thornbury that they both stayed at 12 Piazza Mignanelli and that Turner ‘painted there the “View of Orvieto”, the “Regulus” and the “Medea” [Nos. 292 [N00511], 294 [N00519] and 293 [N00513]]. Those pictures were exhibited in Rome in some rooms which Turner subsequently occupied at the Quattro Fontane. The foreign artists who went to see them could make nothing of them’. However, Eastlake reported a more mixed reception in a letter to England in February 1829: ‘More than a thousand persons went to see his works when exhibited, so you can imagine how astonished, enraged or delighted the different schools of artists were, at seeing things with methods so new, so daring and excellences so unequivocal. The angry critics have, I believe, talked most, and it is possible you may hear of general severity of judgment, but many did justice, and many more were fain to admire what they confessed they dared not imitate.’

Turner advertised in the Diario di Roma for 17 December 1828 that he was to exhibit ‘due Paesaggi’ for a week at the Palazzo Trulli. These John Gage identifies as Orvieto and Regulus, though it is known that Medea was on view on 17 December. In a letter of February 1829, Eastlake confirmed that Turner had exhibited these three works, as well as having begun ‘eight or ten pictures’ (for a later letter by Eastlake, see No. 328a).

A number of paintings from the Turner Bequest are identical in their coarse canvas, the form of the original stretcher, and the way in which the canvas was fastened to the stretcher (with upholsterer's sprigs) to Orvieto and Medea (Regulus is on a similar canvas, but has lost its original stretcher and form of attachment). These are the three figure subjects, Nos. 296 [N05498], 297 [N05517] and 298 [N05509], and Southern Landscape, No. 299 [N05510]. Other works probably from the group are Nos. 300 [N05506] and 301 [N05473]. Other candidates for works begun in Rome are the composition sketches on a similar though even rather coarser canvas, Nos. 302–17; see p. 160. These sketches, and one of the larger unfinished pictures (No. 300), shows signs of having been rolled, presumably for ease of despatch to London. Both types of coarse canvas would seem to be Italian in origin, presumably purchased in Rome. Probably also from this trip are the smaller sketches on millboard. Nos. 318–27.

Turner had in fact written from Paris on II August 1828 to Charles Eastlake, who was already in Rome, asking him to secure one or two canvases, 59 1/4 × 98 1/2 in., so that he could begin straight away on a landscape for Lord Egremont. This is generally held to be Palestrina (No. 295 [N06283]), which measures 55 1/4 × 98 in. but is in fact on a fine canvas.

Turner himself reported his progress in a letter to Sir Francis Chantrey of 6 November 1828: ‘I have confined myself to the painting department...and having finished one, am about the second, and getting on with Lord E's [presumably Palestrina], which I began the very first touch at Rome; but as folk here talked that I would show them not, I finished a small three feet four to stop their gabbling’; this last was presumably Orvieto.

Eastlake's account in Thornbury goes on, ‘When those same works were packed to be sent to England, I advised him to have the cover covered with waxed cloth, as the pictures without it might be exposed to wet. Turner thanked me, and said the advice was important; “for”, he added, “if any wet gets to them, they will be destroyed.” This indicates his practice of preparing his pictures with a kind of tempera, a method which, before the surface was varnished, was not waterproof [in fact analysis has not revealed any tempera, though Turner did quite often use watercolour on his oils and in at least one case, No. 300, a picture apparently from this group seems to have suffered losses to its water-soluble glazes]. The pictures referred to were in fact not finished; nor could any of his exhibited pictures be said to be finished till he had worked on them when they were on the walls of the Royal Academy’. This is supported by the review of Orvieto in the Morning Chronicle for 3 May 1830 quoted under Pilate washing his Hands (No. 332 [N00510]). Although Turner had hoped that his Rome paintings would reach London in time for the 1829 Exhibition, there were shipping delays and Orvieto and Palestrina were not exhibited until 1830, nor Medea until 1831; Regulus was not exhibited until 1837.

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, p. 221; 1877, p. 100; Finberg 1961, pp. 307–11; Gage 1968, pp. 679–80; Gage 1980, pp. 118–20, 125, 127, 132.

Nos. 292–5: Exhibited Pictures

293. [N00513] Vision of Medea 1828

THE TATE GALLERY, LONDON (513)

Canvas, 68 3/8 × 98 (173·5 × 241)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (52, ‘Vision of Medea’ 8'2 1/2" × 5'8 1/8"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. Rome 1828–9; R.A. 1831 (178); R.A. 1974–5 (473).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 221, 319–20; 1877, p. 447; Bell 1901, p. 115 no. 172; Armstrong 1902, p. 225; Lord Broughton, Recollections of a Long Life 1910, iii, pp. 294–5; MacColl 1920, p. 16; R.B. Gotch, Maria, Lady Callcott 1937, pp. 279–80; Falk 1938, p. 130; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 310–11, 326–7, no. 358; Lindsay 19662, p. 49; Gage 1968, pp. 679–80; Gage 1969, pp. 91, 104–5, 163, 187, 263 n. 128; Herrmann 1975, p. 232; Wilton 1979, pp. 196–7, pl. 209; Gage 1980, p. 120; Cecilia Powell, ‘“Infuriate in the wreck of hope”: Turner's “Vision of Medea”’, Turner Studies ii no. I Summer 1982, pp. 12–18, pls. I and, details, 6, 7 and 8; Jerrold Ziff, ‘But why “Medea” in Rome?’, Turner Studies ii no. I Summer 1982, p. 19.

This was one of the three pictures that Eastlake said Turner exhibited at Rome, telling Thornbury that ‘Turner's economy and ingenuity were apparent in his mode of framing those pictures. He nailed a rope around the edges of each, and painted it with yellow ochre in tempera.’ The present reconstruction of the rope frame is by Lawrence Gowing.

Lord Broughton, who was taken by the sculptor Thomas Campbell to see Turner's exhibits on 17 December, noted in his diary that ‘The chief of these strange compositions, called the Vision of Medea, was a glaring, extravagant daub, which might be mistaken for a joke—and a bad joke too. Mr. Campbell told us that the Romans who had seen these pictures were filled with wonder and pity.’ The Moderne Kunstchronik, published in 1834 by J.A. Koch in collaboration with other German artists who were in Rome at the time, was equally scathing, perhaps in jealousy of the ‘large and vulgar crowd which had gathered to see the exhibition of the world-famous painter, Turner... The pictures were surrounded with ship's cable instead of gilt frames ... The composition purporting to show the Vision of Medea was remarkable enough. Suffice it to say whether you turned the picture on its side, or upside down, you could still recognise as much in it’ (Gage 1969, pp. 104–5).

At the R.A. in 1831 the picture was exhibited with the following lines:

‘Or Medea, who in the full tide of witchery
Had lured the dragon, gained her Jason's love,
Had filled the spell-bound bowl with Æson's life,
Yet dashed it to the ground, and raised the poisonous snake
High in the jaundiced sky to writhe its murderous coil,
Infuriate in the wreck of hope, withdrew
And in the fired palace her twin offspring threw.’

MS Fallacies of Hope

This was number 1 on Turner's list of titles and verses for his R.A. exhibits of that year, now in the Tate Gallery archives: the spelling (e.g., ‘Eason’ for ‘Æson’) and punctuation differ slightly.

The picture shows Medea performing an incantation attended by the Fates. Above, on the left, she appears again leaving Corinth in a chariot drawn by dragons, throwing down the bodies of her children, slain by herself to spite Jason. Cecilia Powell suggests that this rare scene was known to Turner from the opera Medea in Corinto by J.S. Mayr, performed a number of times at the King's Theatre, Haymarket in the years 1826–8. However, as Cecilia Powell also points out, certain details—the hurling of Medea's children from the chariot and the heaps of snakes, poisonous herbs and other noisome ingredients for her spell in the lower left-hand corner of the picture—suggest a knowledge of Seneca's Medea as well.

Ziff suggests that Turner's choice of Medea as a subject for his exhibition in Rome was based on his reading of Pliny's Natural History which quotes, as an example of an artist's fame, Julius Caesar's purchase of two paintings, of Ajax and Medea, by Timomachus and his presentation of these at the Temple of Venus Genetrix in Rome.

The critic of the Athenaeum for 14 May 1831 started off from the verses for his attack on the picture: ‘The painting is of a piece with the poetry. Here we have, indeed, the Sister Arts-and precious sisters they are! Mr. Turner, doubtless, smeared the lines off with his brush, after a strong fit of yellow insanity ... The snakes, and the flowers, and the spirits, and the sun, and the sky, and the trees, are all in an agony of ochre!’ The artist had achieved ‘a gambouge phrenzy worthy of the Bedlam lines ... “Jaundiced sky!” - “a good phrase — a good phrase”.’ But the other critics, though deploring the main figures, found something to praise, albeit sometimes rather grudgingly. ‘Colour! colour! colour!’ exclaimed the Literary Gazette for 7 May; ‘Still there is something so enchanting in the prismatic effect which Mr. Turner has produced, that we soon lose sight of the extravagance, in contemplating the magical results of his combinations’. For La Belle Assemblée for June 1831, ‘as a combination of colour, the work is truly wonderful’.

Until the painting was relined in 1967 the original canvas was attached to the back of the stretcher by long bent-over sprigs.

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