Joseph Mallord William Turner

A Group of Figures: Study for an Unexecuted Picture of ‘The First Plague of Egypt’

c.1799–1805

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Artist
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Medium
Chalk on paper
Dimensions
Support: 436 × 271 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D05054
Turner Bequest LXXXI 152

Catalogue entry

Inverted relative to the sketchbook’s foliation, the subject is continued on folio 78 recto opposite (D05055; Turner Bequest LXXXI 153). There is another study for the subject, the Biblical first plague of Egypt, on folios 22 verso–23 recto (D04944–D04945; Turner Bequest LXXXI 42–43, and another drawing, perhaps related, is on folio 75 recto (D05049; Turner Bequest LXXXI 147).
The plague is described in Exodus 7: 17–21:
In this thou shalt know that I am the Lord: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in mine hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink; and the Egyptians shall loath to drink of the water of the river. ... and [Moses] lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.
The ‘First Plague’ was never realised as a finished work, but two other paintings based on the story of the plagues of Egypt are extant: The Fifth Plague of Egypt, shown at the Royal Academy in 1800 (Indianapolis Museum of Art;1 see under folio 13 recto; D04926; Turner Bequest LXXXI 25), which in fact depicts the seventh plague, that of hail and fire, and The Tenth Plague of Egypt, shown in 1802 (Tate N00470;2 see folios 3 recto and 15 recto; D04906, D04930; Turner Bequest LXXXI 5, 29).

Andrew Wilton
May 2013

1
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.10–11 no.13, pl.10 (colour).
2
Ibid., pp.16–17 no.17, pl.13 (colour).

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