Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Dawn or Sunset Sky above a Landscape


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 188 × 227 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXIII 289

Catalogue entry

This economical but evocative study is ambiguous both as to its setting and the time of day it depicts, respectively whether sea or land and dawn or dusk. Finberg called it simply ‘The pink sky’,1 while the darkening towards the slightly convex horizon and the possibly fortuitous strokes above it at the right suggest rising ground with silhouetted buildings or trees. Compare Tate D25329 (Turner Bequest CCLXIII 207).
Having been reproduced prominently in colour in the catalogue for Lawrence Gowing’s Turner: Imagination and Reality exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1966,2 which perhaps marked the high point of Turner’s being considered in a Modernist context,3 this work came to be compared with paintings by the American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko (1903–1970), typified by symmetrical horizontal, soft-edged bands of colour (see Tate T04148, T00275, and particularly T04149). The artist is known to have admired Turner (see for example the full catalogue text for Tate T03031). The American curator John Walker suggested that the present work ‘seems to anticipate’ Rothko in its search for ‘color [sic] relationships which would have a sensual appeal’ with the ‘illustrative element ... subordinate to these chromatic harmonies.’4 Jeremy Robinson developed this theme: ‘It is so simple: sky and earth: yet so expressive. It is a pure colour sketch, with the sky and land marked simply by these two washes, resembling some of Rothko’s last paintings, which were grey and black in equal portions on vertical canvases.’5
As a rejoinder in the context of Celmins Selects Turner, a selection of relatively ‘abstract’ Turner’s alongside her own work by the American artist Vija Celmins (born 1938) at Tate Britain (May 2012–March 2013), Andrew Wilton, who has been concerned along with other Turner scholars since the 1970s to place Turner in his historical context as well as to explore his artistic development,6 noted in relation to Gowing’s 1966 selection and reproduction of this work:
Finberg 1909, II, p.836.
See Gowing 1966, p.29.
See Sam Smiles, J.M.W. Turner: The Making of a Modern Artist, Manchester 2007, pp.119–20, [193]–204.
Walker 1976, p.156.
Robinson 1989, p.60.
See Andrew Wilton, Turner in his Time, London 1987, and revised ed., London 2006.
Andrew Wilton, ‘J.M.W.Turner: A lesson in modern art history’, The Turner Society, accessed 17 September 2015,; first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 7 September 2012.
Nicholas Alfrey, ‘Turner / Rothko’, Turner Society News, no.112, August 2009, p.16.

Matthew Imms
March 2016

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